How bacteria rule over your body

The human microbiota consists of the 10-100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells harbored by each person, primarily bacteria in the gut; the human microbiome consists of the genes these cells harbor. Microbiome projects worldwide have been launched with the goal of understanding the roles that these symbionts play and their impacts on human health. Just as the question, “what is it to be human?”, has troubled humans from the beginning of recorded history, the question, “what is the human microbiome?” has troubled researchers since the term was coined by Joshua Lederberg in 2001. Specifying the definition of the human microbiome has been complicated by confusion about terminology: for example, “microbiota” (the microbial taxa associated with humans) and “microbiome” (the catalog of these microbes and their genes) are often used interchangeably. In addition, the term “metagenomics” originally referred to shotgun characterization of total DNA, although now it is increasingly being applied to studies of marker genes such as the 16S rRNA gene. More fundamentally, however, new findings are leading us to question the concepts that are central to establishing the definition of the human microbiome, such as the stability of an individual’s microbiome, the definition of the OTUs (Operational Taxonomic Units) that make up the microbiota, and whether a person has one microbiome or many. In this review, we cover progress towards defining the human microbiome in these different respects.


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