Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Microbiome research vaults science and politics in reach of Lao Tzu

I believe that our dawning understanding about how deeply individual living beings interdepend on other living beings -- not just at the species and interspecies levels but as individuals -- is the next huge thing in human apprehension of what it means to be. As I wrote this summer, in One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you:
What I find staggering is how this newly-understood scope of the human microbiome impacts any conceivable concept of "self" -- a topic of interest to narcissists, philosophers, and readers of Ayn Rand throughout the ages. What does "I" mean when each of us is a massively populated ecosystem? When each of us is, so to speak, a teeming zoo enclosed in a bag of skin.
But enough about me. Let's turn to an exhilarating article Michael Specter recently published in The New YorkerGerms Are Us: Bacteria make us sick. Do they also keep us alive? I include excerpts in this post, but I recommend the entire article, whether you find it in your personal stash of unread magazines, at your local public library, or in the on-line New Yorker Archives, where one can purchase digital access to the issue of 22 October 2012.

Specter's piece begins with an introduction to the bacterium Helicobacter pylori.

H. pylori is a creature that co-exists with -- a.k.a. "infects" -- more human beings than all other bacteria combined, according to Specter. In 1982, a couple of scientists, Barry Marshall and J. Robin Warren, discovered the bug was responsible for gastritis and peptic ulcers in humans. Marshall and Warren later won the Nobel Prize for this work. Following their discovery, a long period of discussion and experimentation around a quest to rid human beings of H. pylori altogether ensued.

Luckily, this effort didn't succeed.

Why luckily? Because H. pylori does more than wreak havoc on human digestive systems. As the chair of NYU's Department of Medicine, Martin J. Blaser, put it to Specter:
"Germs make us sick [...]. But everyone focusses on the harm. And it's not that simple, because without most of these organisms we could never survive." [...]

"I love genetics [...]. But the model that places our genes at the root of all human development is wrong. By itself, it simply cannot explain how rapidly the incidence of so many diseases has risen." He stressed that genes matter immensely, but that one must take into account more than just the twenty-three thousand genes we inherit from our parents. The passengers in our microbiome contain at least four million genes, and they work constantly on our behalf: they manufacture vitamins and patrol our guts to prevent infections; they help to form and bolster our immune systems, and digest food. Recent research suggests that bacteria may even alter our brain chemistry, thus affecting our moods and behavior.
The article goes on to describe the mass extinctions [the phrase is mine in this context] of the microbiome in the bodies of people who live in developed countries and subject themselves to regular courses of antibiotics; as well as the loss of microbiome among babies delivered by Cesarean section (our first romp in the microbial fields naturally occurs in the course of vaginal birth, during which a child is draped in the protective mantle of her mother's microbiome).

Neither Dr. Blaser nor other responsible scientists dispute the effect and value of antibiotics, specifically the relationship between application of these treatments and freedom from disease. Put simply, without antibiotics, lots of people who are alive now would be dead. Antibiotics have dramatically increased longevity among populations to whom they are available when needed. Moreover, doctors' ability to safely and routinely perform Cesarean section has similarly saved millions of lives, both of mothers and their babies.

And yet.

Experiments conducted by Blaser, his NYU colleague Yu Chen, and Ann Müller of the University of Zurich, strongly suggest a relationship between absence of H. pylori and the occurrence of asthma. Similar findings are reported by Blaser's lab and others in relation to stomach hormones that regulate appetite, suggesting a relationship between absence of this bug -- so recently on most doctors' hit list -- and prevalence of obesity.

From Specter's article:
He [Blaser] took the theoretical case of a woman who was born at the turn of the twentieth century and possessed then thousand species of bacteria. Beginning in the nineteen-thirties, with the advent of antibiotics, most people began to have one or two courses of antibiotics in their lives. After the war, hygiene improved as well. The result: fewer bacterial species in our microbiome. "Let's say that the woman is down to nine thousand nine hundred and fifty," he went on. "And then she has a daughter. That child is likely to take many more antibiotics than her mother did. She starts life with fewer species, adn she will lose more as she goes along." Project this trend forward a few generations, and the implications are worrisome. "A lot of things are happening at once," he said. "The rise in obesity, celiac disease, asthma, allergy syndromes, and Type 1 diabetes. Bad eating habits are not sufficient to explain the world-wide explosion in obesity."

[...] "We are not talking about illnesses that are increasing by ten per cent," Blaser said. "They are doubling and tripling and quadrupling. With each generation there is heavier impact on the early-life microbiome. And it means we are less and less able to metabolize the food we eat."
It's complicated. And that, really, is the point.

At the risk of introducing a sour aftertaste of the 2012 election season that many would prefer to put behind, here's a short passage of President Barack Obama's speech to the Democratic Party convention on 6 September, as transcribed in the Washington Post:
We don’t think the government can solve all our problems. But we don’t think that the government is the source of all our problems, any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.

Because -- because America, we understand that this democracy is ours.

We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.
What does a political convention speech have to do with the science of species interdependence? Queue up that second-to-last sentence from the exerpt, above:
It’s about what can be done by us, together [...]
Here's the thing.

Whether you're interested in effective action in the realm of politics, medicine, food policy, or energy investments, alignment to the world's reality is prerequisite -- including alignment to the existential truth of deep and pervasive interdependence. We've known this at least since Lao Tzu gave humanity the Tao Te Ching. In Stephen Mitchell's translation:

In harmony with the Tao,
the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full,
all creatures flourish together,
content with the way they are,
endlessly repeating themselves,
endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.

The Master views the parts with compassion,
because he understands the whole.
His constant practice is humility.
He doesn't glitter like a jewel
but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as a stone.

Here's hoping we all -- not just the recently-reelected POTUS -- can find our way forward in harmony with the Tao through these staggeringly complex and dangerous times.

Thanks to Dr. Laughlin Dawes and radpod.org for the image of a ulcerated tumor that is not associated with H. pylori.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The controversy machine v the reality machine
Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit
One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you

1 comment:

  1. If you're visiting on the day this blog was posted, you might want to visit my cross-post on Daily Kos, where a mid-morning promotion to the site's "Community Spotlight" is beginning to generate a comment stream.