Microbiome Monday: The Top Three Questions from Visitors

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As part of the Museum’s special exhibition The Secret World Inside You, visitors can interact with live presenters who are on hand to field questions about the emerging science of the microbiome—the trillions of microbes that live on and in us—and how it affects us all. Presenter Chelsea Gohd, who has a background in public health and biological sciences, recently shared some of the most common questions she hears from visitors—and, of course, her answers to them.

light-filled display of "The Secret World Inside You" exhibit
The Secret World Inside You explores the trillions of microbes that live on and in our bodies.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

Is "microbe" just another word for bacteria?

Sometimes! The word microbe is shorthand for “microorganism”—an organism that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Bacteria are one type of microbe, and a common one, but they share the classification with organisms such as Archaea, single-celled protists, and viruses.

While we may think of them as disease-causing germs, the vast majority of bacteria are not. As The Secret World Inside You demonstrates, many have positive impacts on human health and play important roles in our well-being.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are simply live bacteria and yeast that interact in a positive way with human digestion and overall health. They do naturally occur in our bodies, but you can also introduce them into your digestive system through food or supplements.

Probiotics commonly come from the genus Lactobacillus, as well as the genus Bifidobacterium. These bacteria can help the body process sugars found in milk that those who are lactose intolerant may not be able to digest. Different probiotics have also been found to have positive impacts on the lives of individuals suffering from ailments as diverse as gastrointestinal problems and urinary tract infections.

The use of probiotics as health supplements isn’t yet an exact science, but these microorganisms have immense potential to improve human health and wellness in the future.

SWIT Live Presentation
Live presenters lead sessions with visitors to The Secret World Inside You every 30 minutes.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

Should I be using hand sanitizer?          

As with many health questions, this is a complicated one. Hand sanitizers, along with antibacterial soaps, are incredibly effective at killing microbial populations. However, they are not specialized to target only harmful microbes, so when you use these cleansers, you are also killing many of the beneficial microbes on your hands. In the long run, killing off  benign bacteria in this way can give rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and impair your body’s ability to fend off disease.

There are circumstances where it is appropriate to use hand sanitizer. In hospitals, for instance, the risk for disease transfer is high, and people with compromised or suppressed immune systems abound. This can sometimes make the benefits of hand sanitizer outweigh the negative repercussions. But most of the time, using hand sanitizer provides more cleaning than is actually healthy, and washing with normal soap and water is a much better option.

For answers to more questions about microbes, check out Google-bet: Facts About Microbes.