For most of time, microbes ruled the planet alone. Microbes have been around for billions of years - long before people ever began to inhabit the earth. Am I giving you a good picture of how small humans are in this grander view of life?
We are made of microbes. We leave an invisible trail wherever we go and on whatever we touch. They live on and throughout our bodies, with many of them concentrated in our guts.
Since Darwin promoted an ethos of survival of the fittest in his 1859 treatise On the Origin of Species, we have viewed microbes as foe instead of friend. This made sense when germ theory and newly-discovered antibiotics greatly diminished the death rate from diseases like tuberculosis and cholera.
Yet, the ethos of cleanliness as the path to health still persists despite evidence showing signs of an ailing microbiome, including antibiotic-resistant superbugs, a rise in auto-immune illnesses like asthma and allergies, and the ubiquitious presence of hand sanitizers and anti-microbial products that wipe out healthy microbes.
A little dirt might be better for our health. The majority of microbes that live on and in us are more likely to work with us in a mutually beneficial relationship. They help us digest food, unlock valuable nutrients, produce vitamins and minerals missing from our diets, and break down hazardous toxins. In return, we feed them well.
It might be time to put down the mop!
- Ed Yong - Science writer for The Atlantic, writes the blog "Not Exactly Rocket Science" for National Geographic, and author of I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
- Jack Gilbert - Professor of Surgery and Director of the Home Microbiome Project at the University of Chicago
- Anne Biklé- Biologist, gardener and co-author with David Montgomery of The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health
Colin McEnroe and Chion Wolf contributed to this show, which originally aired on August 25, 2016.