Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Tiniest Scientists Are Very Old - 2

This post deals with some scientific discoveries concerning human genes, microbes, and the intense interaction between and/or among them (a.k.a. symbiosis) deep within the super-organism we call a "human".

I had a hard time trying to decide which series of the Dredd Blog System this post should fit into.

I finally realized that, since there is so much subject matter overlap, this post will necessarily touch upon several series of posts located on all three blogs in the Dredd Blog System.

It is the import of these scientific discoveries which mandates that today's post is going to have to be a case where several series are referred to in order to bring the new discoveries into the context of the broader perspective of subjects touched upon across the Dredd Blog System.

I think I can illustrate the compelling nature of the case in point with this one quote:
As they look beyond the genome ... researchers are ... awakening to the fact that some 90 percent of the protein-encoding cells in our body are microbes. We evolved with them in a symbiotic relationship, which raises the question of just who is occupying whom.

Altogether ... 99 percent of the functional genes in the body are microbial.

... genes in this microbiome — exchanging messages with genes inside human cells ...

... shifts in perspective, occurring throughout cellular biology ... seem as dizzying as what happened in cosmology ... issues once thought settled are up in the air.
(George Johnson, NY Times, emphasis added). That "who is occupying whom" statement in the quote can be taken to uncanny heights of wonder, especially if we also pause at this moment to also ponder:
The microbes cohabitating our body outnumber human cells by a factor of 10, making us actually “superorganisms” that use our own genetic repertoire as well as those of our microbial symbionts, says Julie Segre, who works on the Human Microbiome Project at the National Human Genome Research Institute, in Bethesda, Md. We just happen to look human because our human cells are much larger than bacterial cells ... no matter how you look at it, it’s high time we acknowledge that part of being human is being microbial.
(Our Microbial Selves, American Chemical Society, emphasis added). A factor of 10 is a helluva big number however you look at it.

For example it means at least 10 microbe cells for every human cell, i.e., like being outnumbered 10 to 1.

Some of you regular readers may have thought I was stretching it a bit when I merely quoted:
"Our cells, and the cells of all organisms, are composed of molecular machines. These machines are built of component parts, each of which contributes a partial function or structural element to the machine. How such sophisticated, multi-component machines could evolve has been somewhat mysterious, and highly controversial." Professor Lithgow said.
(Putting A Face On Machine Mutation, emphasis added). Yes, according to evolutionary cosmology, microbes evolved from a grouping of tiny machines (the elements) into complex single cells by the addition of a realm we can call the essence of organism.

We have touched upon the ability of these microbes, in a post on Ecocosmology Blog, where another incredibly huge statement was made about these tiniest life forms:
A team of University of Toronto chemists have made a major contribution to the emerging field of quantum biology, observing quantum mechanics at work in photosynthesis in marine algae.

"There's been a lot of excitement and speculation that nature may be using quantum mechanical practices," says chemistry professor Greg Scholes, lead author of a new study published in Nature. "Our latest experiments show that normally functioning biological systems have the capacity to use quantum mechanics in order to optimize a process as essential to their survival as photosynthesis."
(The Tiniest Scientists Are Very Old, emphasis added). The microbial world is billions of years older than humans, and on top of that, the tiny microbial world can "do quantum physics".

New genetic research tells us that "99 percent of the functional genes in the body are microbial", that we are in symbiosis with the vast world of microbes, and that human cells are only a tiny part of the composition of the super-organism called "me".

Which leads once again to the questions "who is occupying whom?", and "how was the decision made to hook up?"

In future posts we will explore how this reality plays out upon the notion of how toxins of power work within human beings, how this reality plays out upon evolution, and how this reality plays out upon the tenets of Ecocosmology.

The first post in this series is here.

Additional reading concerning the subject matter of this post is now available at the Toxins of Power Blog and the Ecocosmology Blog.


  1. Interesting post, although I don't think I like the word choice of "who is occupying whom," owing to the fact that it contradicts the latter statement of symbiosis between microorganism and human cells. I feel like the word occupation automatically comes with the assumptions of possession and or force, and it seems that this relationship is, above all else, primarily symbiotic. Still, thinking about the idea that there are more non-human cells than human inside a HUMAN makes for interesting nomenclature.

  2. DJ Squizzy,

    "... thinking about the idea that there are more non-human cells than human inside a HUMAN makes for interesting nomenclature"

    The microbes that are identified as being symbiotic are known to have been around billions of years before human cells (See here).

    Thus, even though they are inside a "human being" these cells are not human in the pure sense of the word.

    "who is occupying whom"

    That was their phrase, I simply repeated it.

    The link I gave you might add some food for thought to that notion.

    Anyway, thanks for your good comment and thoughtfulness.

  3. "A factor of 3 means cubed, a factor of 2 means squared, but a factor of 10 means "a helluva big number". "

    Well, no. 2 and 3 are factors of 6, since 2 x 3 = 6. An exponent of 3 means something is cubed. You are confusing "factor" with "exponent", I believe.

  4. "... shifts in perspective, occurring throughout cellular biology ... seem as dizzying as what happened in cosmology ... issues once thought settled are up in the air"

    That nails it.

    These discoveries are nothing less than a revolution in genetics and psychology based on physiology of the brain.

  5. all these human-symbiozing microbes - how different are they from the microbes living in/with chimps, dogs, cats, rats, crabgrass? in other words, might the difference between me and my cat be mostly due to the human vs cat genes, and not so much to the microbes-in-me vs the microbes-in-my-cat?

  6. mistah charley,

    Good questions.

    I think it is too early still for much research along those lines.

    The revolution this caused is disrupting things everywhere.

    There is a struggle to keep some old bearings, as well as to set some new courses to explore these new things.

    You might want to read the complimentary posts (on Toxins of Power Blog and Ecocosmology Blog) now mentioned in this post with links to them.

    Those posts at the other blogs expand upon the subject matter of this post in different ways.

  7. Anonymous—I believe the usage Dredd quoted is acceptable. To wit:
    "A quantity by which a stated quantity is multiplied or divided, so as to indicate an increase or decrease in a measurement: The rate increased by a factor of ten."
    A factor of ten ≠ ten orders of magnitude.