Lo and behold, the U.S. government is sponsoring a huge project to investigate the role of bacteria in our bodies.

It’s the Human Microbiome Project, and there’s an article about it in today’s New York Times. Reading through both descriptions, I’d say these researchers are engaged in some potentially subversive stuff. Here are a few statements from the National Institutes of Health web site describing the project::

–“These (bacteria) communities…remain largely unstudied, leaving almost entirely unknown their influence upon human development, physiology, immunity, and nutrition.”

–“Traditional microbiology has focused on the study of individual species as isolated units.”

–One of the project’s goals is “Understanding whether changes in the human microbiome can be correlated with changes in human health.”

Then this from the NY Times article:

–“Since humans depend on their microbiome for various essential services, including digestion, a person should really be considered a superorganism, microbiologists assert, consisting of his or her own cells and those of all the commensal bacteria. The bacterial cells also outnumber human cells by 10 to 1, meaning that if cells could vote, people would be a minority in their own body.”

–“The nature of the gut (bacteria) tribes is heavily influenced by diet…”

— “Another goal is to understand how pathogenic bacteria manage to usurp power from the tribes of beneficial commensals in the skin or gut, causing disease.”

— “Taking a broad spectrum antibiotic presumably wreaks devastation on one’s companion microbiome…”

Haven’t I heard variations on these ideas discussed and debated, sometimes in heated fashion, on a blog over the last couple of years?

My other question is this: what happens when this project determines that much of what the medical and public health communities have been taught is wrong?

Don’t be surprised if the study’s results need to be re-confirmed by another decade-long study, and then another. Or am I being too cynical in my view that too many people have too much to lose by research concluding that much of what we’ve believed about the role of bacteria in our health has been wrong?