I have a degree in molecular biology, and I can remember the day I told a decidedly non-scientific friend about the mite that lives in human eyebrows—I thought it was fascinating, but he found it not only disgusting but profoundly disturbing. Modern civilization has tried to banish all parasites and insects from our bodies and living spaces; we think we live in an antiseptic indoor refuge separate from the creeping, crawling outdoors.
A recent New Yorker had an article that would have disturbed my friend even more: “Germs Are Us,” by Michael Specter. What scientists are discovering is that our bodies are actually a “microbiome,” an ecosystem that includes not just the cells of our bodies but thousands of species of bacteria, viruses, and fungi (not to mention those mites). Mr. Specter writes,
We are inhabited by as many as ten thousand bacterial species; these cells outnumber those which we consider our own by ten to one, and weigh, all told, about three pounds—the same as our brain. Together, they are referred to as our microbiome—and they play such a crucial role in our lives that scientists have begun to reconsider what it means to be human.
There are ten trillion cells (more or less) in our bodies, so that means we contain 100 trillion bacteria, virus, and fungi cells. This raises the question: Who am I? Am I an individual or a community?
There is an ancient bacteria that lives in every plant, animal, and fungus cell; we know them as “mitochondria.” They are the power plants of our cells. The current scientific theory, well-established, says that long ago a bacterium formed a symbiotic relationship with another one-celled creature. This union was so successful that, billions of years later, it still exists in every cell with a nucleus on the planet.
Mr. Specter describes research that shows that the bacteria in our microbiome “manufacture vitamins and patrol our guts to prevent infections, help to form and bolster our immune systems, and digest food.” And this research into our internal ecosystem is just beginning.
This is ironic news, considering what a germophobic nation America has become. We have antibiotic soap and sprays and handgel. We’ve been taught that all “germs” are bad. We demand antibiotics from our doctors at the slightest sign of sickness even for illnesses caused by viruses.
Researchers are discovering that some chronic diseases are caused by an imbalance in our microbiome, brought about by our diligence in killing bacteria. Asthma and irritable bowel syndrome are two of the first conditions that have been linked to disturbed microbiomes. Other diseases will surely follow: the bacteria in our intestines are essential to the proper metabolism of the food we ingest, and perhaps a disturbance in the intestinal ecosystem leads to diseases such as diabetes and obesity. (This research has been supported by the National Institute of Health’s Human Microbiome Project.)
Obesity may actually be one of the consequences of our increased use of antibiotics. The research establishing this has been done on a large scale by industrial agriculture: 80% of all antibiotics used in this country are given to animals. The animals are given antibiotics not because they are sick, but because the antibiotics make them gain weight faster.
For me to be healthy my bacterial community needs to be balanced and healthy. Biologists are discovering many such symbiotic relationships in nature. For example, there is a relationship between plant roots and fungus that is essential to the health of both. This is why when we dig up wild plants they often die in our gardens—they cannot thrive on their own but only as part of a community. Are we the same? Do we only thrive as part of a community? Am I really a we?
This research is not news to anyone who has a spiritual understanding of the world: everything is interdependent. Everything is related.
Some years ago I filmed a scientist at the Highlands Biological Station who was studying the relationship between spiders and carnivorous pitcher plants. The spider spins her web on the top opening of the plant, taking advantage of the pitcher plant’s attraction to insects. At first it appeared that the spider was a parasite, stealing food from the pitcher plant. But at the time I filmed, what was just becoming clear to the researcher was that this was perhaps a symbiotic relationship: the spider was actually aiding the pitcher plant by pre-digesting the food. The spider consumed the insect and her droppings fell into the digestive chamber of the plant. The food was pre-digested: less energy was required by the plant to assimilate the insect’s nutrients.
The spider and the pitcher plants are partners; in the same way our intestinal bacteria are our partners, helping us assimilate nutrients.
For too long humans believed we were separate from the natural environment and that we could trash it without it hurting us. We believed we were separate from other nations and peoples and we could live well while they suffered in poverty; we believed their suffering didn’t hurt us. Finally we are learning that we are all interconnected. There is only the One. There is no separation. We can’t hurt anything without it also hurting ourselves.