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DNA: The Things We Carry

Ninety percent of the cells in what we think of as our body are nonhuman. Our nonhuman components fuel our cells, digest our food, synthesize vitamins, maintain our immune defenses, and may explain our epidemics of asthma and depression as well as why obesity can be contagious. Understanding how we acquired all this nonhuman life with us is important, not only for how we think about ourselves and how we are treated medically but also for our future as a species. In 2002, Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg coined the term “superorganism” to describe the ensemble of human and non-human cells that constitute our body. We consist of about 10 trillion cells. They make up our brain, muscles, bones, blood, and major organs. In addition to these 10 trillion human cells, the average healthy person also carries about 100 trillion nonhuman cells in the form of bacteria, fungi, and entire organisms such as mites, lice, and worms. These passengers are alive; many are capable of an independent existence and yet end up living in and with us. That we carry around 10 times more nonhuman than human cells pales beside the f …

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