Phagepunk proposes a scientific and cultural movement that responds intelligently and with wonder to the excitement and possibilities of the newly emerging view of our viral and microbial selves. Nothing living is a singular entity, sterilely comprised of only its own genetic material and own cells; rather, everything exists in an ecosystem—various macro- and micro-organisms living in concert, depending on each other for valuable metabolic processes. Further, these ecosystems are not merely food webs or chains with interchangeable participants but are vital wholes that actually comprise an organism.
We do not simply exist in an ecosystem; we are an ecosystem. To remove our microbial and viral parts would be tantamount to removing our vascular systems or our livers: we would not thrive or perhaps even survive. This close symbiosis is defined as a holobiont. Every living thing is a biont—that is, an organism that participates in a holobiont—trees, corals, ants, elephants, humans, bacteria, viruses. Understanding the human species as a holobiont is vital to the future of human health and our effects on global health.
Phagepunk seeks to modify what we mean when we say “our” genetic material or “our” cells. Every element that makes up a particular holobiont belongs specifically to that ecosystem. My genetic material contains not only that which I label as “human” but that which is viral and microbial as well. Bacterial cells on my body outnumber my human cells 10:1, and for every human gene I have, I have 360 bacterial genes of which many are unique to my personal holobiont. These genes don’t just influence how my body works, they actually are the source code for many processes that are intrinsic to my survival and overall health. As we expand our view of what constitutes the physical self, we will be able to more precisely treat illnesses and maintain health based on the needs of the individual holobiont.
Moreover, though my body’s bionts are distinctly mine, they also freely share information with other bionts within other holobionts in ways we have yet to fully understand. This free sharing of information (usually genetic) often benefits both holobionts and is an important part of the evolution of all life.
Phagepunk, by its very name, seeks to impart a global consciousness of the vital role that viruses (particularly bacteriophage) play in this sharing of information. Streamlined to packets of information with a sole intent of transferring that information to a host, viruses move vast amounts of genetic material within holobionts, between holobionts, and even across global ecosystems. On a global scale, if viruses were so inclined to space travel, all the viruses in the world could balance on each other from earth to Andromeda and back—three times. More locally, my human cells are outnumbered by viruses 100 to one. And we have little to no idea how many genes viruses shuttle around that are vital to our well-being. We often speak of genes in technological terms, calling them a “source code.” As a vast host of dedicated transporters of this code, viruses hold power over our biological fates in ways we are only now just beginning to realize.
The cellular-centric view of human health and ecological systems must be revised to include our viral bionts as well. Viruses are the missing keys to understanding global ecological and human health as well as to affecting positive change in that health.
Phagepunk pairs the elegant aesthetics and exuberance of the Victorian Age of Discovery with contemporary and futuristic scientific tools and methodology, accessing the hidden internal universe in every organism. Birthed from a love of the punk philosophies (steam-, cyber-, and bio-), phagepunk takes elements of each of these and synthesizes them in an attempt to understand the biology of the human species as a holobiont historically, currently, and in its not-so-distant future.
We do not need to create the future of human health de novo; rather, we need to look to the powerful ecosystem that has resided on and in our bodies for thousands of years, specifically focusing on the epicenter of all information transfer—our guts. Using the useful advances in technology and online access to information, this exploration of a largely uncharted universe can occur.
However, just as the Age of Discovery’s crucial advances in human knowledge depended on gentleman and gentlewomen scientists, literally risking life and limb, phagepunk needs intrepid explorers to map out their personal holobionts and share that information with others. While most punk explorers are focused on computers, artificial intelligence, and uploading of human consciousness, phagepunk (like biopunk) focuses on DNA as the source code from which springs metabolomics, stem cells, genome engineering, and biohacking—the truly important technologies for this age of mapping out and manipulating human holobionts.
Phagepunk calls out to all those who are tired of having the control of their health in the hands of others. Those who instinctively know that they are biologically complex individuals who cannot be fully defined by population statistics. We need citizen scientists empowered to experiment and research with the goal to further our understanding of the intricacies of human health. Most of us do not possess a foundation of knowledge to understand the emerging biological technologies nor to make informed decisions for our health. Even more disturbing is the certainty that most of the medical experts we seek to help us also lack this knowledge base.
Individual humans need to take control of their own knowledge and their own health. Like biopunk, we call you to research with us [i]. But we want to open research beyond the bench work of molecular biology. Like the citizen scientists of centuries ago, valuable contribution to science can be made by keen observation of an entire (eco)system and daring experimentation with changes in that system.
While we employ the tools and methodology of molecular biology, we also understand that valuable data about the human ecosystem can be gathered from our day to day lives as intrepid explorers monitor things like what they eat and how they daily live, always keeping in mind how these elements affect their system as a whole. Phagepunk encourages scientific methodology both in the lab as well as the living room (and most definitely the pub) and endeavors to empower the citizen scientist with these tools. Further, phagepunk believes that every individual has the right of access to their personal information and the right to share that information with others. Personalized medicine begins with the individual’s taking control of his or her holobiont’s information. Phagepunk seeks to inform citizen scientists where they can get this information and places where they can learn to interpret it.
Science is not hard. It is a playful exploration of our world. Let’s play.
[i] Meredith Patterson, “A Biopunk Manifesto,” January 29, 2010, http://maradydd.livejournal.com/496085.html.