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Scientists Map the World's Microbes

Microbiologists are starting to make sense of tens of thousands of samples they've collected from around the world, undoubtedly containing legions upon legions of different kinds of microorganisms. How many kinds? That's just the point: Nobody knows.

The microbial world is "Earth's dark matter," says Janet Jansson, a senior staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. By that, Jansson means that the varieties of bacteria and other microorganisms are as mysterious as the unseen stuff that makes up 85 percent of the matter in the universe.

Jansson held up a spoon of soil during a news conference Friday at annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Vancouver, Canada ā€” and noted that there were more organisms in that spoonful than there were stars in the Milky Way galaxy (100 billion).

Talk about big numbers: Scientists estimate that there are 10 trillion microbes in every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of soil on Earth. Our planet is home about a nonillion cells (that's a 1 with 30 zeroes after it). Most of those are microbes. Each human body is thought to consist of 10 trillion cells, harboring microbial communities that amount to 100 trillion cells. From a microbe's point of view, we're all just lumps of flesh that are convenient places to hang out, said Jack Gilbert, a microbiologist at Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago.

"Without them, you'd be dead," he told reporters at an AAAS meeting. "Without us, they'd just move onto something else."

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