Humans are no exception when it comes to forming symbiotic relationships with prokaryotes. We are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as single organisms, but in reality, we are walking ecosystems. There are 10 to 100 times as many bacterial and archaeal cells inhabiting our bodies as we have cells in our bodies. Some of these are in mutually beneficial relationships with us, in which both the human host and the bacterium benefit, while some of the relationships are classified as commensalism, a type of relationship in which the bacterium benefits and the human host is neither benefited nor harmed.
Human gut flora lives in the large intestine and consists of hundreds of species of bacteria and archaea, with different individuals containing different species mixes. The term “flora,” which is usually associated with plants, is traditionally used in this context because bacteria were once classified as plants. The primary functions of these prokaryotes for humans appear to be metabolism of food molecules that we cannot break down, assistance with the absorption of ions by the colon, synthesis of vitamin K, training of the infant immune system, maintenance of the adult immune system, maintenance of the epithelium of the large intestine, and formation of a protective barrier against pathogens.
The surface of the skin is also coated with prokaryotes. The different surfaces of the skin, such as the underarms, the head, and the hands, provide different habitats for different communities of prokaryotes. Unlike with gut flora, the possible beneficial roles of skin flora have not been well studied. However, the few studies conducted so far have identified bacteria that produce antimicrobial compounds as probably responsible for preventing infections by pathogenic bacteria.
Researchers are actively studying the relationships between various diseases and alterations to the composition of human microbial flora. Some of this work is being carried out by the Human Microbiome Project, funded in the United States by the National Institutes of Health.