Hunnicutt Addresses Big Question with Small Organisms


David Hunnicutt’s lecture at the Door Community Auditorium will start small, but the questions the microbiologist will pose are much bigger than the bacteria he studies.

Like, what does it mean to be human? Where is the boundary between us and the rest of the world?

“I think we tend to think of ourselves as separate from the world, in some ways,” Hunnicutt said. “We’re not separate, we’re part of a supraorganism [a system of organisms considered to be one organism].”

Hunnicutt is an associate professor of biology at St. Nortbert College, and his lecture is titled “Gracious Hosts.” He teaches classes on microbiology, immunology, biology and bioterrorism, and researches organisms that cause fish disease.

The bacteria Hunnicutt studies are related to those found in the human digestive system, something that sparked his interest in the relationship between bacteria and human health.

“It turns out there are more bacteria cells in the human body than there are human cells,” he said. “A lot of our digestion is conducted by microorganisms. We don’t [digest] ourselves, we just give [bacteria] a nice place to live and let them do it.”

Recent scientific studies have looked at the role bacteria play in our health. One experiment swapped the gut bacteria in lean mice with the gut bacteria in obese mice, causing the lean mice to gain weight and the obese mice to slim down. Other studies have shown different organisms living in the digestive tracts of people with diabetes and those without the disease.

While those studies show interesting relationships between gut bacteria and health, Hunnicutt there’s much more to learn. He said diseases like autoimmune conditions, irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia, which tend to be difficult to treat, may be related to the organisms in the human body.

“We’re an ecosystem,” Hunnicutt said. “It’s like any other system. There’s a balance that needs to be maintained.”

Common habits like using antibacterial soaps and cleaning products, or taking unnecessary antibiotics, can alter the bacteria colonies in our bodies, and not always in a good way.

“A lot of what we are taught as children, that bacteria are bad and we need to get rid of them, is an oversimplification,” Hunnicutt said. “You’re not healthy without them.”

Squeamishness over bacteria – Hunnicut calls it the ‘ick factor’ – makes some people uncomfortable with new medical practices that bring gut bacteria back in balance. Many physicians use fecal transplants, for example, to treat C. difficile infections, which can be life threatening.

Hunnicutt’s lecture at the Door Community Auditorium (DCA) at 9 am on Saturday, Jan. 18 will kick off the St. Norbert College Distinguished Lecture Series, which brings experts from a variety of fields to present at the DCA.

“When I thought about folks to include the most important thing I chose was ‘who’s likely to be interesting,’ regardless of what the field is,” said Kevin Quinn, a St. Norbert economics professor who organized the lecture series. “In my experience every single field there is, at least at a liberal arts college, is going to be interesting at some level if it’s discussed properly.”

Door Community Auditorium is located at 3926 Highway 42, Fish Creek. For more information call 920.868.2728 or visit