Sunday, 21 August 2016


I think that most of us are willing to accept than the constellation of microbes that accompany us throughout our lives, the trillions of viruses, bacteria and other germs, are more than mere hitchhikers or pathogens but are really in many ways the ones at the helm and we are in a sense the stowaways—though that’s poorly processed with statements like a bacterial imbalance is responsible for what we’re unable to overcome through willpower or in the form of gimmicky probiotics. Listening to an excellent conversation on Fresh Air from NPR (listen to the entire talk—there’s much more in it than my humble take-away), that truth was made clearer to me plus that we are just beginning to appreciate the complexity of the ecology within us.
While searching for the edges, we find things like the proven yet poorly understood therapy of fæcal transplants for treatment of certain chronic gastro-intestinal ailments and the digest that surrounds the deleterious effects of non-discriminatory anti-biotics and over keeping too clean and hermetically-sealed, it struck me how the mechanism and relationship is better illustrated in the perhaps more straightforward insect world—where we’re not caught up in pride and hygiene. Fully forty percent of the insects and arthropods in Nature (quite a lot of the world’s life but just a fraction of the whole, considering the population of bacteria and archaea) host a truly remarkable and versatile bacteria called Wolbachia, which seems to have as much influence on the bugs it resides in as their genetic makeup. Inherited—or rather passed (the research helping us realise that a robust immune system is passed from mothers to babies indirectly by compounds in breast milk that only helpful bacteria can eat), along matrilineal lines only, the bacteria are responsible for shaping the society of termites, ants and bees by controlling the breeding-stock and according that rarefied privilege to a select few or even facilitating the ability for others to reproduce by cloning. Perhaps contrary or an alternative to the method of propagation and self-preservation that hosting pesky pathogens imparts (and how that might operate and might have granted an advantage is also poorly understood), that same bacterium also inhibits mosquitoes from acting as disease vectors when introduced to a population without fumbling around with their DNA. That really speaks to me and suggests that we ought not to try for the low-hanging fruit before understanding the whole ecosystem and also what might opportunities might be won in small nudges.