What proportion of the human body is bacteria (and how do we measure it)?
Next time you try washing your hands with antibacterial soap, consider that there's at least as many bacteria in your body as human cells.
Asked by: Richard Asselin, Ottawa, Canada
For decades, scientists’ best guess was that the body contains 10 times as many bacteria as human cells. However, a team from Israel and Canada revisited the calculations in 2016 to estimate that we have a roughly equal number of bacteria and human cells.
They based their calculations on the fact that most of our bacteria are found in the colon. Using information from MRI scans, they calculated the colon volume of a ‘reference man’. Since there are about 90 billion bacteria per gram of wet stool, they estimated that there are around 38 trillion bacteria in the body, compared with 30 trillion human cells.
Dr Emma Davies is a science writer and editor with a PhD in food chemistry from the University of Leeds. She writes about all aspects of chemistry, from food and the environment to toxicology and regulatory science.