Mutualism — down where?!

Humans are not as independent as we would like to think. What we typically think of as you or me cannot be compatible with Emerson’s concept of self-reliance or the psychological theory of self-determination when we consider our reliance on the other 90 percent of cells in our body: bacterial cells. Millions of microorganisms fulfill complex functions to aid us in processes like digestion, immune functioning, development and even reproduction. Human cells are only about 10 percent of the cells we carry around, the remaining 90 percent of our breathing, sneezing, singing, running, moving, functioning life forms are composed of bacteria and microorgansims. The body is an ecosystem and the other community members are just as much a part of the successful functioning of its whole, as our own human cells.

Vaginas are not an exception. Bacteria function in the maintenance of female reproductive health just as much as they play a role in our more frequently considered guts, mouths and less sexual organs. Research sponsored by the National Institute of Health, as part of the Human Microbiome Project, has shown that human vaginas are fluctuating environments with competing species of bacteria. Bacterial composition and community dynamics have important consequences on the prevention of diseases, metabolism of glycogen from epithelial cells shed during menses and in maintaining a certain pH environment.

What types of bacteria live in your vagina? Vaginas are not hosts to exotic bacterial mutants found no where else in the world, but are predominated by friendly Lactobacillus: the same bacteria found in yogurts and kefir also typically reside in our female orifices. The importance of these bacterial inhabitants becomes obvious for conditions like bacterial vaginosis (BV) which occurs when the ecosystem’s balance is disrupted by pathogenic bacterial invaders. The consequences of BV are disconcerting when considering that BV is associated with a higher risk of getting HIV and gonorrhea as well as having negative consequences on the health of babies born to mothers with BV during pregnancy. Research by Roxana Haxley and colleagues has presented these trends and analyzed some of the data obtained through the Human Microbiome Project; these results were published in 2012 in the journal Translational Research and can be found here.

Density of gonorrhea cases worldwide. Darker orange indicates a higher incidence of cases. Pale yellow indicates ~10 cases per 100,000 and dark orange indicates ~160 cases per 100,000 people. Could microbiome flora be correlated with these differing densities?


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