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Science of a Superorganism


BE INSPIRATION │ KNOWLEDGE


How do genes and symbionts affect the formation of new species?


Seth R. Bordenstein is an American professor of biology at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN http://bordensteinlab.vanderbilt.edu. He is most well known for his work on symbiosis and speciation and his development of citizen science programs including Discover the Microbes Within! The Wolbachia Project http://discover.mbl.edu. He holds two appointments in the Department of Biological Sciences and Department of Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology at Vanderbilt; and he has a joint appointment with the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods


Hole, MA in the Bay Paul Center. You can follow Dr. Bordenstein on Twitter - @Symbioticism or visit his blog at - http://symbionticism.blogspot.com


Mouth Bacteria. Credit Robert Brucker


E pluribus unum is a good motto for the human body. Translated from latin, this phrase means “Out of many, one”. If you’re like most people, when you look in the mirror, you see a single organism ‒ yourself - one individual out of the billions of humans that inhabit the planet. But if you’re a microbiologist like myself, I see one human plus the trillions of microorganisms that live in symbiosis with you.


In fact, I see as many microorganisms inside your mouth, as there are people on the planet.


Is this delusional? Science fiction? Hardly. What I am talking about are the trillions of microscopic bacteria that live in or on your body, all the time. You need these bacteria for untold reasons, including digesting food and mounting an immune response against infections that should not be in your body. The principle motivation for why I choose to study this topic is because I am fascinated by the facts and unknowns about the following observation ‒ each one of us is not just a single organism, but rather one superorganism composed of bacteria, viruses, and our own cells.


In the last decade, biologists have discovered that there are thousands of different bacterial species inside or on us. Among these bacteria are just a few dozen species that catastrophically make us sick. So while human nature has conditioned us to have germ phobias, the truth is that we need our microbial associates. They are not only our friends, but they are essentially us. A human cannot exist without their bacterial passengers, but the bacteria will do just fine without you. The laws of nature are the same everywhere. Beyond humans, other animals owe their existence to the microscopic symbionts within them. These microorganisms, in fact, populate the Earth in every imaginable and inhospitable place ‒ from polar ice caps to deep sea hydrothermal vents, from plant roots to boiling springs, from indoor environments to the sky. In fact, if you were to sum up the weight of all bacteria on Earth, they would outweigh humans roughly 5000 to 1. That is, for every one pound of human weight on the planet, there are 5000 pounds of bacterial weight. Furthermore, for every one cell in the human body, there are 10 times as many cells of symbiotic bacteria. For every one gene in your genome, there are 100 times as many genes from the collective genome of the bacterial community in you. Despite the inferior size of bacteria, it is actually the human cell and genome that are inferior in number to those of our symbiotic bacteria.


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