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Re-envisioning Our Relationship With Micro-Organisms - Brian Degger

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.



Humans are topologically donuts, bacteria live on the surface, human cells on the inside. We are dwarfed by the number of genes that are in these bacteria. At last estimation there are only 23000 genes encoded in our genome(10.1186/1471-2105-7-327) and up to 9 million of bacterial origin (10.1371/journal.pone.0006074). From this we need to consider the fact that this bacterial population forms a chronically understudied extrahuman organ.

Are we going to discover that there is a deep bacterial culture basis to human culture, that some cultural norms actually support a specific community of bacteria? We already recognise that fermentation outside the body has had a profound effect on what we as humans can eat or metabolize (coffee, cheese, kim chi etc). Now we have to recognise that this fermentation doesn't stop on the outside of our body, it continues, as bacteria provide essential nutrients to us. Might there be communal rituals that are about keeping the 'good culture' alive in the community? When explorers introduce pathogens into a 'naïve population' what is really being lost? If there is a move away from the traditional foodstuffs, are we losing more than a human culture?

The adage 'you are what you eat' makes more sense when changing a diet could change suceptibility to modern diseases such as diabetes (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009085) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010507) by modifying our gut bacterial composition. The pectins in apple fruit skins have been shown to favour friendly bacteria within the gut (doi:10.1016/j.anaerobe.2010.03.005) and obesity (doi:10.1038/4441022a). As a last resort, colonic gut bacteria have been transplanted from a healthy person to cure a patient suffering from Clostridium difficile diarrhoea.

What will this mean for the Future We Deserve?

We hypothesise that there is a lot more going on in human culture than meets the eye. If we are carriers of 'good' as well as 'bad' bacteria, what does this add to human-human interactions, such as the rituals and customs of greeting? Are differences between cultures reflected in our microflora?

Can we have strategies that minimise the unintended evolution of bacterial pathogens by reducing the use of antibiotics? Can we investigate using other more specific technologies such as phage (a bacterial virus) therapy to knock out specific 'bad' bacteria such as C. difficile? In a wider context, do shared bacterial communities provide a method by which members are alike?

Can we 'know our bacteria' and gain guides on what foodstuffs we should be eating to maintain health? Can we envisage a Personalised Probiotics, that is not another mass produced commodity, or a 'lite' version of what actually works.

Lots of questions to answer, but that is part of the Future We Deserve, a culture that understands how it operates, where even the 'lowly' bacteria has a place, and not just as a cause of disease.