Let’s learn about microbial communities

Bacteria and other single-celled critters are all around us, on us — and even inside us

a blue gloved hand holding a petri plate with pink bacterial colonies growing on it

When scientists study microbes in the lab, it’s usually one species at a time. But out in the wild — such as on your skin — microbes tend to live in complex communities.

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Your skin is covered in living things. There are bacteria in your armpits causing a stinky odor. There are ancient archaea that like to eat your sweat. And a common bacterium helps to keep your skin healthy — or makes you break out.

Inside you, there’s even more of these tiny living things. They make up your microbiome. And they can influence your health, behavior and more.

When scientists study these bacteria, archaea and fungi in the lab, they often look at one species at a time. They may not even be able to grow some species in the lab environment. These critters, though, often live in complex communities. That can make studying individual species more difficult. But what we learn could lead to important knowledge about our environment and ourselves.

Want to know more? We’ve got some stories to get you started:

Check out the communities of bacteria living on your tongue: Mapping which are neighbors could uncover what they need to stay healthy (4/22/2020) Readability: 7.8

Bacteria are all around us — and that’s okay: Although these microbes remain poorly understood, they could prove key to protecting life across the planet (10/4/2018) Readability: 7.8

Good germs lurk in gross places: The secret superpowers of poop, dog drool and snot (10/5/2017) Readability: 7.6

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Grow your own colorful microbial communities with a Winogradsky column. Just be patient. This will take 4 to 8 weeks to produce color.

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has degrees in biology and journalism and likes to write about ecology, plants and animals. She has three cats: Oscar, Saffir and Alani.

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