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Clever Apes: A world of bugs

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A scientist samples the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, part of a global census of microbes. (Courtesy of Argonne National Lab)

Microbes are by far the most abundant life form on the planet. The numbers are so big, they’re almost comical: maybe five million trillion trillion bacteria on earth, and that’s conservative. And yet we know shockingly little about who’s living where, and what they do.

So, big deal, right? We’ve gotten along this far without a phone book for the hordes of germs in almost every nook and cranny on the globe. But consider some of the very practical things bacteria do for us. They break down stuff in the soil, without which we couldn’t grow crops. They are a carbon spigot, releasing or trapping greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change. They even eat oil spills. That’s not to mention everything the bugs that live in and on our bodies do for our digestion, metabolism and immune system.

Now the Earth Microbiome Project is out to catalog microbial life all over the planet – it’s billed as the largest microbiology study ever undertaken. Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory are taking much of the lead. They are collecting samples from basically everywhere: the arctic tundra, the deep ocean, a farm in Ohio, the hind legs of a lizard, the inside of a kid’s aquarium.

They also have samples from my cell phone, and my left shoe. Last weekend, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, Canada, Argonne scientists Jack Gilbert and others briefed the press on the project. In a PR masterstroke, they distributed swabs to all the reporters and had us swab our phones and shoes. They then rushed the specimens back to Argonne, where they’re rapidly sequencing the genes. Any day now, they’ll be publishing the results on Facebook. As soon as I know what kind of filth I’m carrying around on my touchscreen and shoe sole, I’ll post it here.

(I talked over these issues on WBEZ’s new show, The Afternoon Shift with Steve Edwards. You can hear the conversation by clicking the “listen” link above, or by subscribing to our podcast.)

A fuller picture of earth’s microbial life could have some very concrete benefits for us. Gilbert says by understanding the soil bacteria on farmland, we might be able to put together a kind of microbial weather report, predicting what will grow well there under which conditions. We might also be able to come up with better climate change models, and even change the course of climate change, by figuring out where microbes are big players in either producing or trapping greenhouse gasses. We might someday be able to predict where and when to expect a particularly high load of bad bugs, like tropical diseases or flu. And we might even be able to make better decisions about when to wipe out all the microbial life somewhere (99.9 percent of which is benign, or even beneficial) by, say, sanitizing your hands, sterilizing a hospital room or taking an antibiotic, or when to leave well enough alone.

We’ll have more on the microbial civilization that lives on my iPhone and my Doc Martens in coming days, along with a whole other fascinating element of this microbiology bonanza: the Home Microbiome Study. You can find out how you might enroll in the study, and learn how your microbial profile matches up with your house’s.

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