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Wednesday, 8 June 2016

We're all in this together

I am a human. So are you! But are we just human? Or are we something more? And are we part of something even bigger than ourselves?
We are taught growing up that we are humans, that Spot is a dog, that Paddington is a bear, that the tree in the garden is an oak tree. But that's not quite accurate; dogs, trees, bears and humans (and everything else) are living habitats for microorganisms. Animals have intestinal bacteria, bacteria on our skin, even in our beards. Trees have fungi on their roots, and bacteria and fungi living endophytically within them. These microbes aren't just living in and on us though; they digest food for us, keep us safe from diseases, and can make plants able to grow in poor soil (or even just on bare rock!). And that's just what we know about so far; more and more research is being done on microbiomes within plants and animals, and every year we know so much more about the hidden microbial world within our own bodies. I'm proud to be part of that research!

So if they're living within us and doing good things, are they not part of 'us'? Some seeds can't germinate without bacteria, people who kill their intestinal bacteria with antibiotics (during treatment for infections I mean, I don't think many people do that for fun) are really susceptible to disease, and ruminant animals like cows and kangaroos need their bacteria to properly digest their food. Is it right to exclude them from our concept of self just because they're on a different branch of the evolutionary tree? Or should we revise our view of the world and see 'me' as a big consortium of organisms working together? It's arrogant of me to think I'm the most important one just because I'm the biggest (and sentient).

It's also a little arrogant to see us as being the top of this chain. Do we not all work together? Do we not all need each other to survive? I'm handy with a pipette but that wouldn't matter if there wasn't someone making them, or making food for everyone, building my house and lab, providing me with WiFi, everything we all use and do and own was made by everyone working together. Does that make the human race one big consortium of organisms as well?

That's way beyond what I wanted to talk about (and way too deep for this time of day!) but it's an interesting thought. But back at a more personal level, it's odd to think that part of 'me' is a single celled organism munching on my partially digested cereal in the dark of my small intestine. It's also pretty awesome though! I wonder what his name is?

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