We may not realize it, but each one of us is a walking ecosystem. Minuscule, eight-legged Demodex mites nestle head down inside the follicles of the eyelashes, feasting unnoticed on skin cells. Microscopic bacteria live on the tongue, teeth, and skin and in the intestine*. Dormant viruses like herpes simplex may loiter for years inside nerve cells. Perhaps strangest of all are the self-replicating, viruslike pieces of DNA that infected ancient humans and still make up about 8 percent of our genome.
Most of the time we share our bodies harmoniously with the 90 trillion or so microbes. But sometimes the arrangement turns contentious, as when blood-sucking bedbugs, fleas, and lice invade, or when herpes simplex or human papillomaviruses cause surface membranes to erupt in nasty pustules or warts. Just taking antibiotics may disturb the ecosystem in our gut by killing not only disease-causing organisms but also good bacteria, like Lactobacillus acidophilus.
Living with microbes demands a biological balancing act. For the most part, though, we are blissfully oblivious to the microscopic life we carry around with us. Considering what those organisms look like, that may be a good thing.