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Seattle Times: It's a microbial world out there

Just how wretched is this?

That soap scum that forms on the shower curtain? It's really a biofilm loaded with more than a billion bacteria per cubic inch.

The moving belt on an escalator? When you put your hand there, you're dipping into a puddle of bacteria left by all those who went before.

How about the potting soil for your petunias? It's the happy home of a pathogen called Microbial Avian Complex, a potentially troublesome bug.

Then there's the sponge you use to rinse dishes at the sink. Yep, loaded with thriving bacteria.

If this makes you want to go relax in a hot tub, think again. The air wafting from the hot water is probably loaded with microbes, some of them able to give you a hacking cough.

It's a microbial world, says Norman Pace, a researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Virtually everything you touch is coated with the little critters. You couldn't escape them if you wanted to because your skin is covered with about 100 million bacteria, says Pace.

Yet, science knows very little about environmental microbes, how they live, reproduce and thrive in the natural world. Most of what is known comes from germs cultured and studied in the lab.