Microbes ‘R’ Us

When I was a kid I hated the idea of microbes – but they’ve grown on me.

I mean, I knew they were there, nestling in my nooks and crannies, but out of sight was out of mind; even if they were still in my brain, living it up in my liver and braving my guts.  We simply ignored each other – until the bloody Olympics.

You see, if my family hadn’t lost the lottery for tickets we wouldn’t have flounced off to the US and I would never have set out to climb the terrifying mountain Half Dome in Yosemite.  A sheer cliff on one side towering majestically – a phrase, I imagine, that refers to the Stuart type of six foot plus royalty rather than our present miniature monarchs – five thousand feet above the valley floor. I wouldn’t have suffered its thigh searing ascent nor the blood-pounding senior moments, convinced I was about to be placed under cardiac arrest. But, mainly, I wouldn’t have then received an email from the U.S. Center for Disease Control informing me that due to a number of incontinent, and may I say rather shitty, rats in the park I, along with 21,999 other visitors, had been exposed to the Hantavirus, a microbe that generates an incurable and fatal disease which may or may not manifest itself ‘in the next six weeks’.  Intimating that I probably shouldn’t bother to renew my library books.

I was incensed. How dare something so tiny have such a devastating effect on something as big as me?  With only weeks to live, I decided my last days would be spent trying to understand the microbe. It was then I realised that none of us are who we think we are.

The vast majority of life is microbes.  ‘Microbes make up 80 percent of all biomass,’ says microbiologist Carl Woese. The world, it turns out, is not run by democracies and despots but, overwhelmingly, by microbes.

Biologists see humans as a collection of 10 trillion cells, the product of just 23,000 genes. But microbiologists see, inside all of us, a microbiome: 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing at least 3 million non-human genes.

But if there is more non-human than human in all of us, what actually are we?

In comparison to the detailed information we find in our microbiome, DNA is less the “blueprint” of identity, it’s more like those Taiwanese gadget manuals translated by the literary equivalent of a Come Dine With Me contestant.

In fact, we exist in constant symbiosis with our resident bacteria; our microbes fight germs, break down food and generally let us get on with the taxing business of consciousness and tweeting our high score on Fruit Ninja, whilst we feed, house and nurture them.  They aren’t parasites or passengers; they’re fully fledged members of a society which we, human “hosts”, are just one member of – albeit a bloody big one.

The philosopher Hobbes imagined something similar: a ‘Leviathan’, a single giant made up of all the individuals in a nation.  As the population grows, we will witness more and more the pixilation of a nation. Like the Olympic stadium on TV; less the individual fans, more the collective sounds and forms produced by the mass and their individual nine bulb seat panels. With the benign model of the microbiome , perhaps we will worry less about the aliens in our midst and understand better how the totality works.

Hobbes was arguing the necessity of kings to represent the will of the people.  Now with mass polling the Leviathan represents itself.  Hobbes couldn’t see how the king, Charles I, could also be just one of the Leviathan’s constituents or why his giant would execute its own monarch.  But it did. A week to go now.  I’m waiting to see what the star chamber of my own roundheaded microbes will decide.  If there’s no column next month take heart, democracy still won.

 

This article first appeared in

KCW-masthead-nostrap-long4