Thursday, October 3, 2013

A gut feeling

 Microbial communities are highly interactive, and extremely fluid, within the ranges they inhabit. They create whole complex ecosystems of their own, which are largely invisible and entirely incomprehensible to us at our current state of development in microbiology. Teasing apart some of the relationships between various microbial communities will have a major impact on understanding a wide range of human diseases, many of which are caused, directly or indirectly, by imbalances in gut bacteria. Diabetes, autism, cancer, obesity, and heart disease have all been implicated. This means that a wide range of the major killers in the disease community have important links to the way that our microbes are balanced, and their interaction with one another and our body.

Even more disturbingly, imbalances in gut bacteria can definitely lead to macroscopic psychological manifestations, as has been proven repeatedly in laboratory experiments with lower mammals. this means that microbes don't just affect the way your body functions; they affect the way you think. As bizarre as it may sound, microbes may make you smarter.

Or they may make you go out and buy a gun and shoot a bunch of people at a movie theater. We just don't know; and that's what ought to worry us more.

All of this is part of an emerging science of emergence — that is to say, a deepening of our understanding of the properties of emergence itself. Put very briefly, and in layman's terms, emergence is the property whereby an aggregate population of simple elements — whether it be molecules, bacteria, cells, or organisms such as bees or ants — that, by themselves, display consistent and easily predictable behaviors, reach a critical mass of synergistic interaction whereby they suddenly display completely unforeseeable new agencies and an entirely different level of organizational abilities.

Put simply, intelligence itself— and the property of consciousness — are emergent properties of matter. You cannot, for example, take a look at a DNA molecule and predict by looking at that molecular structure that it will create a creature that does what a human being does. But if you put enough DNA together, and it tells enough other material elements what to do, you do get that extraordinary and unusual creature. Much has been made of this by prominent scientists such as Robert Ulanowicz (A Third Window: Natural Life Beyond Newton and Darwin) Stuart Kauffman (Reinventing the Sacred) and Simon Conway Morris (Life's Solutions),  all of whom argue, for various — and very good — reasons, that biology as it manifests displays inexplicable phenomena which cannot be grasped by reductive scientific analysis alone.

 These books are far from simple — although well worth reading — but the point they make is that we live in extremely complex biological systems which display properties science cannot fully understand under any current, or future, set of circumstances. We may create some good approximations of some small fraction of the world we live in, but that fraction will always be necessarily small, because of the enormous complexity and the extraordinary behaviors of biosystems.

 These systems are so complicated that we are not going to fix them by tinkering with them; but we can most assuredly alter and even ruin them by dumping chemicals into them willy-nilly. Every massive, wholesale alteration of the environment — whether it is an environment outside of a man's body, or inside of it — causes the potential wholesale collapse of the inner or outer ecosystem. A huge assembly of maladies ranging from the inconvenient — for example, IBS, irritable bowel syndrome — to the catastrophic — such as Crohn's disease and stomach cancer — are directly attributable to microbial disruption in human digestive systems and other parts of the body. It turns out, for example, that atherosclerosis— the leading cause of heart attacks — is, without any doubt, directly linked to long-term inflammation in the linings of blood vessels, which has been directly associated with periodontitis, the bacteria that cause gum disease.

 We depend, in other words, on the microbial communities that support our bodily functions. In the same way, the outside ecosphere depends on microbial communities that support every single function we observe. Our health and well-being are vitally depended on these systems, but, unlike the macroscopic biological events we can have an effect on — for example, you can operate on a heart to fix a valve — we are very nearly unable, and probably always will be unable, to affect the long-term changes in these microbial systems, because they are vast, complex, and operate in porous environments with little or no control on the influence of outside events such as weather, temperature, influx of an excessive or foreign materials, community interactions, and so on.

You can slow down a heart or stop it beating to perform an operation on it, because it's large enough to see, you know where it is, and you know what needs to be done to it. That description can't possibly be applied to any microbial community we are currently aware of, and it probably never will be. Heart operations are scalable; microbial ecosystem management is not.

 Most of what we deal with in terms of internal and external ecosystems must, of necessity, apply itself to macro solutions. Micro solutions, while they can be engineered for specific instances such as cancers, become much more difficult to implement. It's been discovered, for example, that every single cancer is somewhat different in each individual. If you and I both have, for example, prostate cancer, although they share many of the same characteristics, what works to cure my prostate cancer won't necessarily work to cure yours. Microscopic ecosystem solutions are almost certainly going to turn out to have the same unique and individual characteristics, but they will be far more complex, thus far less susceptible to outside management. This is compounded by the fact that they are tiny, invisible, far more subject to contamination by foreign agencies, and inherently unpredictable because of the fluidity of their interactions.

This is why having negative effects on microbe populations, wherever they reside, has long-term implications that ought to be of far more concerned to human beings than they currently are. We are already engaged in the largest reengineering of the microbial communities on the planet in its history, because we are introducing foreign agents that have never before existed on the planet, in the form of tens of thousands of different chemical products that are contaminating our waters, our air, and our soil.

 This question needs to be re-examined over and over again in more detail, because it is not being discussed enough in environmental communities. The idea that we can tacitly accept the proliferation of chemical products without restraint needs to be retired.

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