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HOW TINY ARE MICROBES?
Bacteria and viruses are almost unimaginably small. Bacteria are usually measured in microns (abbreviated “μm,” 1 micron equals 1 one-millionth of a meter), while viruses are measured in the even more miniscule unit of nanometers (abbreviated “nm,” 1 nanometer equals 1 one-billionth of a meter, or 1 one-thousandth of a micron). To give a sense of these measures, consider that the period at the end of this sentence is about 350 microns, or 350,000 nanometers, in diameter. If we magnify the period to one thousand times its actual size (see far left), a nearby Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the bacterium that causes hospital-acquired pneumonia and bloodstream infections, becomes visible. If, in turn, we magnify Pseudomonas 75 more times, or to 75,000 times its actual size, an adjacent influenza virus particle also becomes visible.
How Pathogens Make Us Sick
Infection does not necessarily lead to disease. Infection occurs when viruses, bacteria, or other microbes enter your body and begin to multiply. Disease, which typically happens in a small proportion of infected people, occurs when the cells in your body are damaged as a result of infection, and signs and symptoms of an illness appear.
In response to infection, your immune system springs into action. White blood cells, antibodies, and other mechanisms go to work to rid your body of the foreign invader. Indeed, many of the symptoms that make a person suffer during an infection—fever, malaise, headache, rash—result from the activities of the immune system trying to eliminate the infection from the body.
Pathogenic microbes challenge the immune system in many ways. Viruses make us sick by killing cells or disrupting cell function. Our bodies often respond with fever (heat inactivates many viruses), the secretion of a chemical called interferon (which blocks viruses from reproducing), or by marshaling the immune system’s antibodies and other cells to target the invader. Many bacteria make us sick the same way, but they also have other strategies at their disposal. Sometimes bacteria multiply so rapidly they