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Gut Check: Science Probes Frontier Within Us Made Up of Millions and Billions of Microbes

For every one of our own cells, our bodies play host to 10 other microbial cells: bacteria, fungus, viruses and other microscopic creatures that scientists are still working to discover and understand. In other words, we're outnumbered by these 100 trillion or so microbes -- many of them strangers -- that form our microbiome, the name given to the collection of all microorganisms living in and on the human body.

The microbiome is a relatively new frontier for scientists, who have only begun to examine how these microbes might affect the function of our bodies. The more we learn, however, the more certain it seems that this wildlife should be considered less an invading force and more an invisible ecosystem that could hold the key to more efficient means of fighting disease, and clues to a whole host of diseases that on the surface would seem to have little to do with bacteria -- like diabetes and obesity.

Earlier this year, researchers unveiled the first findings from the Human Microbiome Project, a National Institutes of Health-funded effort to catalogue and characterize the microorganisms found on various sites of the human body and analyze the role they play in health and disease. The program is examining the organisms that live on various sites, including the nasal passages, mouth, skin, gastrointestinal tract and urogenital tract with the goal of understanding what role they may play in our health, and in causing illness.

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