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Science of a Superorganism


If you strain to understand what you are reading, consider this. The bacteria on your skin mix with your sweat to affect how attractive you are to mosquitoes (Verhust et al. 2011). The bacteria in your gut may enhance whether you are obese or lean (Turnbaugh and Gordon 2009). The bacteria on women’s hands are more diverse than the bacteria on men’s hands (Flerer et al. 2008). We are now in a historic age. How biology looks at the human body has fundamentally changed because of these and many other discoveries. We have perhaps found this perspective just in time as well. With the rise of antibiotic resistance that depletes our arsenal to kill bad infections, the knowledge of the gifts that good microbes bestow to our body creates new opportunities to control which microbes go in us. For instance, a probiotic pill of good bacteria has the potential to restore the balance of our health when bad microbes are a threat.


After billions of years of biological evolution, microbial life has earned a legacy that cannot be denied. All large fauna and flora that we observe without the aid of a microscope owe their well-being to the microscopic life that inhabit them. These microbes are not only prevalent, but also specific to each species that they inhabit. For instance, in humans and our close relatives, the human bacterial community is slightly different from the chimpanzee bacterial community, which is slightly different from the gorilla bacterial community and so on (Ochman et al. 2010). What this finding implies is that the bacteria perform specific functions to each species that they inhabit, just as the genes on chromosomes perform specific functions. Often, the genes interact with the bacterial symbionts, as in the case of immunity genes.


One of the themes that motivate my science is the relative importance of genes vs. bacterial symbionts in the evolution of life (Bordenstein et al, 2001; Brucker and Bordenstein 2012). From a biodiversity perspective, I seek answers to how do genes and symbionts affect the formation of new species ‒ the process by which one species splits into two and ultimately to form the 1.8 million species on Earth? It is important to note in conclusion that answering this question, among others, happens with the energy, passion, and curiosity of young scientists that devote their life to science literacy, education, and professionalism. Alongside doctoral student Robert Brucker (follow on twitter @liveinsymbiosis), we are now discovering new ways in which speciation is dependent on interactions between bacteria and genes.


BE INSPIRATION │ KNOWLEDGE


The Laws of Nature are the same everywhere! Microorganisms populate the Earth in every imaginable and inhospitable place - from plant roots to boiling springs.


ARTICLE CITATIONS


✦Bordenstein SR, O’Hara FP, and JH Werren (2001) Wolbachia-induced incompatibility precedes other hybrid incompatibilities in Nasonia. Nature 409(6821):707-710. ✦Brucker RM and SR Bordenstein (2012) The roles of host evolutionary relationships (genus: Nasonia) and development in structuring microbial communities. Evolution 66(2): 349-362. ✦Flerer, N, Hamady M, Lauber CL and R Knight (2008) The influence of sex, handedness, and washing on the diversity of hand surface bacteria. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 105(46):17994-17999. ✦Ochman H, Worobey M, Kuo C-H, Ndjango J-BN, Peeters M, et al. (2010) Evolutionary relationships of wild hominids recapitulated by gut microbial communities. PLoS Biol 8(11): e1000546. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000546. ✦Turnbaugh, PJ and JI Gordon (2009) The core gut microbiome, energy balance, and obesity. Journal of Physiology 587:4153-4158. ✦Verhulst NO, Qiu YT, Beijleveld H, Maliepaard C, Knights D, et al. (2011) Composition of Human Skin Microbiota Affects Attractiveness to Malaria Mosquitoes. PLoS ONE 6(12): e28991. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0028991


If you were to sum up the weight of all bacteria on Earth, they would outweigh humans roughly 5000 to 1.


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