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Microbes Annihilate the “Nature versus Nurture” Debate

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Most E. coli bacteria found in the body are harmless

The latest research into the genetics of the human microbiome is taking to a whole new level the old (and not always fruitful) argument about whether nature or nurture is a more important influence in our lives.

In the past few days, Science Express published a paper that demonstrated that friendly (or commensal) bacteria don’t just passively crowd out the disease-causing ones. They actively fight back after an infection by taking advantage of selective pressure to force the disease-causing germs to become less fit and eventually die off. (Of course, the bacteria don’t “know” what they’re doing in any sense of the word. It’s just that the ones who are successful at doing it survive.)

Similarly, Nature recently published an article that detailed how the microbial community living inside residents of the U.S. was not as diverse as that inside families living in Malawi or the Venezuelan Amazon. (Whether that difference has any deleterious health effects and why is another story.) (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)

The point is that the microbes that live inside, on and around us all ultimately come from the environment. And these commensal bacteria shape our lives every bit as much as our genetic inheritance does. In fact, in many cases, the genes found in these microbes allow us to do something—like digest the fiber in oranges—that our own genes cannot.

The old dichotomy of nature vs. nurture is meaningless when what we think of as our nature—namely the genes that make us who we are—can come from our parents or our microbes.

About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Andira 2:49 pm 05/17/2012

    Well, the nature vs nurture debate is not really ruled out by the well known fact that microbes help us with our digestion? But do they turn us into criminals? Did Mozart have especially fantastic microbes inside him? Are there musical ones? Do microbes makes us more intelligent? Really… Undoubtedly the results are interesting, considering our diseases, and one might speculate if microbes cause or contribute to schizophrenia or depression, but the results reported certainly do not invalidate the ancient debate about nature vs nurture. We already know that we are dealing with both.

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  2. 2. linda.b.herrick 4:17 pm 05/17/2012

    Agreeing with Andira, I say your title is misleading. The article, while very interesting, still focuses squarely on biological aspects of human capacity and ignores effects of behavioral stimuli. How does this discovery “annihilate” the debate?

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