Each of us is colonized, inside and out, by microorganisms. More than three pounds of microorganisms in our gut alone, and many more on our skin. In fact, we harbor ten microbial cells for every one of our own cells.
If our microbial partners were merely fellow travelers with no effects on our health, their invisible presence would be of little interest. However, we have known for a long time that gut bacteria do affect our health.
Gut microbes produce substances that travel through the gut-liver blood-circulation or breach natural gut barriers. These microbial substances include anti-inflammatory factors, analgesic compounds, antioxidants and vitamins. In addition, toxins produced by gut bacteria can cause serious disease.
In recent years, surprising evidence has emerged that links gut bacteria even to obesity, diabetes and several cancers. A huge international effort, the Human Microbiome Consortium, is underway to sequence the genes of all our microbial partners.
This will be a tall order, as the microbes that colonize us have, taken together, 100 times more genes than we do. And on top of that, those genes appear to have more variants than our genes do. So far, the genomes of 178 microbes, out of the roughly 1,000 that colonize us, have been sequenced.
So – we are a sort of Noah’s Ark, a vehicle for others, being used or even abused – who knows. But we are, as well, a community, a symbiotic constellation, where one needs the other and where one’s own benefit is to the benefit of everybody on the ship.
If Sigmund Freud postulated, that where there is “It” (his term for the postulated ‘unconscious’) must be ‘I’ (the conscious self), one must revise this by saying, that where there was ‘I’ must be ‘We.’
Individual identity as a modern western concept is on the way out.
Social networks have substituted the chat at the weekly market and even the chat on the phone – there is nowadays more facebook-ing and whatsapp-ing than telephoning!
And now biological networks, we and our little companions, are on their way to redefine what is human – which turns out to be less human than what we had thought before – surprised?
The latest hiccup in that field was positioning a person in a sterilized room for four hours, just sitting there. After the person had left the room the room’s air was passed through filters and it was found that bacteria had gathered in the air.
This cloud of bacteria is highly specific for every person. And to not let
misunderstandings arise: the person was fully dressed!
Even our physical personality extends past our body limits! Do we need to revisit concepts like ‘halo’ or ‘charisma?’
Is that why doctors have broad office desks between themselves and the normally sick patient?
Certainly a fascinating new field in human science.