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Am I more bacteria than human?

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We’ve all heard the comments that we have more bacterial cells than human cells, but how true is this?

Am I more bacteria than human? © Dan Bright

There are more bacterial cells in your body than human cells, but the ratio isn’t as extreme as once thought. A 2016 study at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that our total cell count is 56 per cent bacteria (compared with earlier estimates of 90 per cent). And because bacteria are much smaller, their total mass is only about  200g. So by weight, we are more than 99.7 per cent human.

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Even so, we shouldn’t underestimate the contribution bacteria make to our body, nor feel threatened by it. Most of our ‘human’ cells contain structures called mitochondria, which we rely on to convert glucose into compounds we can use for energy.

These mitochondria probably began as free-living bacteria before they embarked on a symbiotic relationship with us. The only reason that we don’t include them in our tally of bacteria is that they never leave the confines of human cell membranes, though they are, in many respects, independent organisms with their own DNA.

Like all multicellular animals, we can’t easily point to individual components and say “This is part of me, and this is not”. Your body is like a city – it has a collective identity that goes beyond its individual inhabitants. The pigeons and squirrels that call London home are just as much a part of it as the humans who live there.

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Authors

luis villazon
Luis VillazonQ&A expert

Luis trained as a zoologist, but now works as a science and technology educator. In his spare time he builds 3D-printed robots, in the hope that he will be spared when the revolution inevitably comes.

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