Thinking Small

The last four years have been about small things: microbes to be exact. I’ve read some pretty amazing studies on bacteria and viruses in the gut and made my share of speculations on where all this human as ecosystem research is going. Some great thinkers have rightly noted that we need to change how we think about being human to include our miniscule inhabitants. But I believe that they have fallen a bit short of what our future paradigm shift will be when we consider microbes as part of our humanity.

The paradigm shift won’t be limited to that we consider ourselves occupied by a great host of microscopic organisms, it will be that we will revise how we delineate between species (both macro- and micro-) to reflect how these organisms operate. We will stop thinking like a macrospecies and will start thinking like a microspecies. We will think small.

You see, most studies and books on this topic (and there are so many good ones out there) still think big. They consider the who that are in our bodies as if, in the microscopic world, that who is as slow to genetic change as our macro-bodies are. We know that not to be the case. In as little as 24 hours after a diet change or a dose of antibiotics, the genetics of a microbial community can change drastically. What we need to consider (and microbial ecologist know this well) is what type of job is being filled. Or what functional need is being met by what set of genetics.

Thinking small requires that we think about genetics (DNA and RNA). Not in that it is the blueprint that spelled out why your eyes are blue but in that genetic material is a language that flows through everything like water flows through the earth. Sure we have distinct bodies of water in lakes and oceans and rivers, but all of this is connected by unseen flow underground that blurs the line between one lake’s boundaries and the other. Thinking small realizes that those boundaries are not as hard and fast as we used to think.

Thinking small changes the way we interpret studies about and interact with our microbiota. It complicates things greatly in that I can’t just take a probiotic pill and expect it to do exactly what I want (or the manufacturers promise) in my gut. But it also simplifies things in that I can cultivate a specific niche (or job) needed in my gut via the way I choose to live and can trust that some micro-organism (doesn’t matter who) will be able to fill that job. Thinking small realizes that there isn’t necessarily “good” and “bad” microbes but that they are all opportunistic and the difference between good and bad can be a bacteriophage away.

Thinking small is truly holistic and allows that a single human is a lake whose water flow goes in and out, mingling with other seemingly isolated lakes.

2015 marks the Centennial of the first discovery of bacteriophages (1915; the second was in 1917 when their name was coined). These viruses are the droplets of water that move between macrospecies and even larger ecosystems. Phage don’t see the difference between species–well actually, they don’t see anything because viruses lack eyes and sentience, but humor me–rather they see the flow of genes. They move in this flow, affecting changes in bacterial genetics that ultimately are changes in our genetics. As we learn to think small, we will also see the blurs between us and them, embracing the flow of genetics as the flow of life.

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