The microbiome consists of trillions of beneficial bacteria that support our bodies in many ways. Some bacteria play an essential role in digestion and in separating the waste and processing it so that it can be excreted. Other bacteria play a role in our reproductive system. When I was a student at Notre Dame, there was a germ-free laboratory on campus where researchers raised animals with no bacteria. One of the complications of doing that was that even rabbits could not conceive if they were germ-free. For years, scientists have debated the question of the origin of our microbiome.
One interesting discovery that has come from prenatal research is that pre-born babies have their own microbiome separate from their mothers. For the past century, medical experts believed that babies acquired their microbiome at or shortly after birth. Research like that done at Notre Dame was thought to support the” sterile womb paradigm” hypothesis. Recent research has suggested that the origin of our microbiome may be from small amounts of bacteria built into the placenta. Discover magazine (June 2020, page 16) reviews the debate over when babies get their microbiome. Part of the problem is that it is very easy for contamination to get into the research specimens creating confusion over whether the bacteria were natural or if they came from contamination.
Our interest in this subject is not so much about the origin of our microbiome as to look at the implications of the data. Everyone agrees that the baby does not have its mother’s microbiome. Some microbes like E. coli are so common that they are found in all microbiomes. Beyond those, there is a unique makeup to each person’s microbiome, including newborns and pre-born babies.
Maintaining that a baby is an extension of the mother and therefore has no rights is to ignore the evidence. Morning sickness is caused by the mother’s immune system not recognizing a foreign object, the baby, and going into defensive mode. The baby growing inside the mother is a unique person with its own genetic makeup, awareness, and microbiome.
The abortion issue ignores the evidence and attempts to create a new vocabulary to make it seem less brutal, but taking a baby out of the womb and killing it is still infanticide. As tough as this issue is, we need to not shield the vile nature of this process by ignoring the evidence. Instead, we should look for solutions that recognize the value of life and the worth of every human being.
The more we learn about the human body, the more we see the complexity that defies any notion of mindless creation. The latest count of microscopic species that live in or on our bodies is over 10,000. The total number of single-cell microbes is over one-hundred trillion. These are not just hitchhikers that have come along for the ride. They are essential to the proper functioning of our bodies. Scientists have well studied most of these microbes, but the scientific literature continues to report on new roles for microbes that scientists previously thought to have no function. We marvel at the amazing complexity of being you.
This complexity is minor compared to DNA. The project to sequence the human genome formally began in 1990 and was completed in 2003. If you wonder why it took so long, consider the enormous size of the DNA molecule. Packed into every cell of your body is a DNA strand that, if you unwound it and stretched it out, would be about three meters long. Considering the number of cells in the human body, if you took the stretched-out DNA molecules from every cell and laid them end-to-end, they would reach from here to the Sun and back almost 70 times. A few years ago, the popular literature told us that 98% of our DNA was junk with no functional use. Since that time, science has learned that over 80% of human DNA has a function, and you don’t hear about “junk DNA” anymore.
The point of all these numbers is to show the amazing complexity of being you. The human body is an incredibly complicated machine with a blueprint that scientists are still not able to read. As we do read parts of that blueprint, we find that our assumptions about our bodies have led to unfortunate medical decisions. As a child, I can remember the polio epidemic and the pain and misery that it brought to some of my friends. It is incredible that I never contracted this virus because when I was very young, I had a lot of throat problems, and the doctor decided to remove my tonsils. We now know that the tonsils are the only area of the body that can synthesize antibodies to fight poliomyelitis. If you don’t have tonsils, your chances of developing polio increase significantly.
We hear promoters of the theory of human evolution glibly talk about the chance mutations of life that would lead to what humans are today. Assuming that the incredible complexity of the human body can come about by chance alone is to accept a faith that defies reason. The simple biblical statement that “God formed man of the dust of the Earth” ignores the intelligence and design that is required. The Psalmist had a glimpse of the amazing complexity of being you when he wrote, “I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalms 139:14-15). Today we know far more about our creation than David did, and we can add our voice to that praise.
One of the most interesting sites on the web is the “Astronomy Picture of the Day” produced by NASA. This website features a new picture every day, usually of objects in deep space with an explanation of the image. On August 18, 2019, there was a beautiful artistic rendition of a human with a star-filled background titled “Human as Spaceship.” (Because of copyright we can’t show you the picture, but you can see it HERE.) The opening line of the explanation is, “You are a spaceship soaring through the universe.”
The point of the presentation is that as we soar through the universe, we are not alone. We are the captains of our ships, our human bodies because we are not a singular living organism. There are a massive number of separate organisms that exist inside our bodies that do specific things for us. They help digest food, fight disease and infection, and carry vital materials on a liquid highway (your bloodstream) from one end of your body to the other. These organisms are the crew of this spaceship. They are bacteria, fungi, and archaea, and they actually outnumber your own cells. Science still doesn’t know what many of these organisms do, but they have their own DNA, and together they make up the human microbiome. You are a spaceship with a massive crew.
We sometimes seem to view God’s creation of the human body as a process similar to building a machine. To build a machine you would put together pre-manufactured parts in a prescribed way. To build a working and living human body requires a host of communities which do the jobs they were designed to do in ways that science is just beginning to understand.