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Won't You Be My Neighbor? More on the Microbiome

Posted Jan 16 2014 10:33am

by Barbara Berkeley

Are you as fascinated by the microbiome as I am?  

It seems simply amazing to me that, until just recently, we've completely missed the fact that we are composed of 10 times more microbial cells than human cells and that our bodies are simply teeming with microrganisms that determine our health.  We are more neighborhood than we are individuals.

What else have we missed?  Probably a lot.

Anthropomorphizing probably doesn't go a long way with microbiota, yet I can't help seeing things from the most familiar perspective....the human one.    Since we know that obese people and animals carry different gut bacteria than slender ones, we are led to wonder why.   Are people born with "fat making" bacteria, or do these unwanted tenants get invited to move in somehow?  It seems quite possible that we control the atmosphere in our "neighborhood" and that the neighbors who move in are the ones who feel comfortable in the environment we create.    We are the cosmic weathermen creating the climate.  We are the ecologists, deciding whether to de-forest our jungles or preserve them.  We are the urban planners, creating liveable space or letting neighborhoods deteriorate. 

Taken to the extreme, we can imagine thiving colonies of healthy neighbors who are wiped out by an assault of toxic antibiotics; a kind of biological napalm.   It's possible that they might be chased out or sickened by many of the other kinds of drugs we ingest as well.  These are modern agents, after all, stomping through an anceint world.  

You won't be surprised to hear that I envision the neighborhood as a primal one, in which inhabitants expect to consume the original foods of man.  One can only wonder what happens under the onslaught of sugars, grains and unfamiliar fats.   What about food colorings?  Additives?  Preservatives?  Imagine being force fed a diet of Big Macs and fast food if this was stuff that made you sick. 

I see the scourged microbiome as a landscape out of Mad Max.  After the destruction, only the toughest are left standing.  And a neighborhood full of tough guys is not a very nice place.   As we see with C. Diff infection, the bullies can take over the block pretty easily once the balance of power changes.  Suddenly, the microbiome moves from a pleasant place to a war zone.  The cross-fire can literally kill you.   

I realize that this about the least scientific thing I've ever written (and that's saying a lot), but thinking about my bio-neighbors is something I find myself doing quite a bit of late.  It seems to give me a new way to look at health.  In the long run, it's not just me I'm taking care of.  And if my neighbors are happy and there is equanimity in the land, I'm not the only one working toward staying well.  I've got help.  





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