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Medicine Science

Are Human Beings Organisms Or Living Ecosystems? 397

Posted by Soulskill
from the little-of-column-a,-little-of-column-b dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Every human body harbors about 100 trillion bacterial cells, outnumbering human cells 10 to one. There's been a growing consensus among scientists that bacteria are not simply random squatters, but organized communities that evolve with us and are passed down from generation to generation. 'Human beings are not really individuals; they're communities of organisms,' says microbiologist Margaret McFall-Ngai. 'This could be the basis of a whole new way of looking at disease.' Recently, for example, evidence has surfaced that obesity may well include a microbial component. Jeffrey Gordon's lab at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis published findings that lean and obese twins — whether identical or fraternal — harbor strikingly different bacterial communities that are not just helping to process food directly; they actually influence whether that energy is ultimately stored as fat in the body. Last year, the National Institutes of Health launched the Human Microbiome Project to characterize the role of microbes in the human body, a formal recognition of bacteria's far-reaching influence, including their contributions to human health and certain illnesses. William Karasov, a physiologist and ecologist at University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes that the consequences of this new approach will be profound. 'We've all been trained to think of ourselves as human,' says Karasov, adding that bacteria have usually been considered only as the source of infections, or as something benign living in the body. Now, Karasov says, it appears 'we are so interconnected with our microbes that anything studied before could have a microbial component that we hadn't thought about.'"
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Are Human Beings Organisms Or Living Ecosystems?

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  • Obesity & Bacteria (Score:5, Interesting)

    by plague3106 (71849) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:18AM (#27584461)

    So the bacteria in the twins is different... why is it worded in such a way as to imply the different bacteria is the reason that one is obese and the other isn't, instead of the type of bacteria changed because being obese (and the eating that goes along with it) favor one type over the other.

    • by 3p1ph4ny (835701) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:34AM (#27584621) Homepage

      I'm not an obesity apologist (or at least, I don't think I am), but I think it's important to recognize that not everyone who is obese just eats cheeseburgers all day. In fact, my diet is pretty piss poor, but I'm thin. Similarly, I know obese vegetarians.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:48AM (#27584743)

        I've been struggling with obesity for some time now. I eat more healthy than many of my slimmer friends and I often work out more, yet I still weigh considerably more.

        Does this mean that it's impossible for me to loose weight? No way, I have been exercising more and eating better and I know have been shedding more pounds. It's just frustrating to watch them eat more junk and not work out at all, and remain slim, where as I would balloon :|

      • by digitalunity (19107) <digitalunity.yahoo@com> on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @09:31AM (#27585201) Homepage

        This would explain what was previously thought to be genetic obesity. I'm obese, as are most of my mothers family. My father is skinny and eats terrible food.

        I eat very healthy and I exercise about 20-30 minutes a day(bike riding or swimming) and yet I still weigh 172 @ 17% body fat. Obviously for some people eating healthy and exercising isn't enough.

        Whether its genetics or microbes, I don't really care. It does bother me though that people in general blame obese people for their weight. Maybe in a lot of cases that negative view is warranted, but probably for a lot of other cases like me, it isn't laziness.

      • It is easy for people with a high metabolism to not be an obesity apologist. Because they are not suffering from the problem. I am a tad overweight myself and I always have to think about what I am eating all the time, for everything I eat. I know people who just have a high metabolism and are very thin and eats 3 to 4 times the calories I do with the same level of exercise. While If I break the rules just a little bit the pounds come right back.

        I see it much like the people who have been born in a Rich Fa

        • by russotto (537200)

          I know people who just have a high metabolism and are very thin and eats 3 to 4 times the calories I do with the same level of exercise. While If I break the rules just a little bit the pounds come right back.

          No, you don't, unless they're on speed or something. I guarantee you're counting something wrong, probably everything. Most likely you're underestimating your own calorie intake. You're probably overestimating theirs, too, and getting exercise levels wrong.

          • Nice, so you are saying he is fat AND stupid?

            That's like adding injury to an insult.

    • by jandersen (462034)

      ... why is it worded in such a way...

      Mostly because it wasn't thought through, I suspect. Recent research seems to indicate that gut bacteria have a large influence on things like immune system, ability to process nutrients and similar, so it seems that having a certain kind bacteria can make it difficult to lose rsp. gain weight. And of course, what we eat will influence what bacteria get established in our gut too. It may be a valid corollary from these observations, that if one were to completely change one's diet from the things that favo

    • Cause and effect, effect and cause... too often we can't tell which is which. Not to mention that one sample (or a handful) does not constitute anything a serious researcher would take, well, serious.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Absolutely! I for one reject this studies' thinly veiled attack on the hegemony of genetic determinism!

      • Strictly speaking, all this development suggests is that you aren't determined merely by your own genome; but by a whole lot of other genomes as well.
      • by DriedClexler (814907) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @09:48AM (#27585417)

        I don't know what your point was, but this wouldn't refute genetic determinism; it just says that the genes determining "you" include those of bacteria.

        Incidentally, I don't understand what's so new about this insight. I read a book published in 1995, Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett (a philosopher rather than a biologist so he was only drawing on what was long-established consensus at the time). It described the view of the body as an ecosystem and suggested that human cells were like "altruistic versions of ant cells" since human cells share even more genetic material (100%) with their neighbors.

        • by Gilmoure (18428)

          Right, but most of these shambling eco-systems only considered base human cells. This is article is expanding that concept to include all the additional flora and fauna living in/on us.

          Is similar to only focusing on a stand of aspens while ignoring all the other life intertwined with it.

          When you get right down to it, life is a big dance. Or we're all just was stars have found to look back at themselves.

    • by Vellmont (569020) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @09:19AM (#27585063)


      why is it worded in such a way as to imply the different bacteria is the reason that one is obese and the other isn't, instead of the type of bacteria changed because being obese

      IIRC there have been animal studies (mice I think) where changing the intestinal bacteria lead to changes in obesity. I don't have an article cite, but I read about it in Science News about a year ago. So it's not simply a correlation that supports this theory.

    • by myxiplx (906307)

      Perhaps because they've done the studies that show calorie intake is actually wildly different according to the bacteria present, regardless of the food eaten. Seriously, go read the articles attached to the original slashdot story, they're fascinating reading.

      I for one am watching this with interest since it's the first research I've seen that adequately explains why somebody like myself can eat without putting weight on, while other have to carefully monitor their intake.

      I eat absolute garbage, in quanti

    • by vlm (69642)

      why is it worded in such a way as to imply the different bacteria is the reason that one is obese and the other isn't, instead of the type of bacteria changed because being obese

      Probably from centuries of parasite research, despite the official tone of the article being against those beliefs. "everyone knows" that given one twin with a tapeworm, and another twin without a tapeworm, the tapeworm twin is thinner because the tapeworm turns food into more tapeworm, that would otherwise turn into human fat or energy for exercise or whatever. No great stretch to apply those observations to bacteria.

      Since some very high percentage by weight of fecal matter (uh, for the uneducated, that

    • by demachina (71715)

      I'm pretty sure Futurama made this discovery some years ago when Fry ate the sandwich from the vending machine in the intergalactic truck stop rest room.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by NotQuiteReal (608241)
      Hmmm, maybe you could come up with a pill, using phage therapy [wikipedia.org] to kill the "fat bacteria", IF you could identify both the bacteria and matching phage(s)...

      Random thought - I was just reading about the efficacy of phage therapy for wounds that were not responding to antibiotics.
  • Of course (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kell Bengal (711123) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:19AM (#27584469)
    Both, of course. Why can't we be an eco system that is also a self-contained individual? Arguably, we could say the same thing about Earth itself (guess who's cancer?)
    • by Sique (173459) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:41AM (#27584675) Homepage

      As in the old jokes, where two planets meet:

      - How's going?
      - Bad... I got Mankind.
      - Had it also. Not a big problem though, it goes away.

    • Cancer... a part of a body gone nuts, a part that once provided a valuable service, then turned berserk, harming the body and only serving itself anymore and worst of all, a self-serving body that just don't know when to quit...

      I'd say the content industry.

      • It's more than the content industry... a film series, from that very same content industry, started as a pretty insightful commentary on Earth's cancer: Koyaanisqatsi [imdb.com], the second movie did some nice contrast on Northern vs Southern hemisphere, and as far as I can tell, the third in the trilogy just went off the rails down the creator's own navel.
    • by radtea (464814)

      Yeah, but attempting to force people to make an arbitrary and meaningless choice about what humans "REALLY" are is the best way to stimulate page views and comments from stupid people, while driving smart people off to wherever it is that smart people go (if you know, please tell me!)

      In every case that we know of there is more than one way to usefully carve up the universe into conceptual chunks. Stupid people think that one of these must be the One True Way, which is, well, stupid. The universe is what i

    • by Lumpy (12016)

      Arguably, we could say the same thing about Earth itself (guess who's cancer?)

      Chimpanzees...

      Those things are plain old evil.

  • by Fotograf (1515543) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:22AM (#27584505) Homepage
    as a human overlord to welcome our bacteria inhabitants
  • There has to be a Star Trek episode here somewhere....

  • by erroneus (253617) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:24AM (#27584517) Homepage

    Perhaps these are the midicloriens we have been looking for. Try to speak to them with your mind and see if you can make things move... (it only works for me in the bathroom when my concentration is at its highest and the accoustics are at their best)

    Also, this brings another question to mind as well. Have our snooty English teachers been correct in using "we" in weird places? "How are we feeling today? Did we do our homework?" The ramifications are... spooky.

    Finally, let's tell ALL the germaphobes out there! This hand-washing nut-cases are annoying! We can either break them of their phobias or finally kill them. Either way, their irrational fears will bug me no further. ("Clean" has it's place, but primarily when it has to do with food and equipment!)

    • "Clean" has it's place, but primarily when it has to do with food and equipment!

      Keyboards are not meant to be eaten!

    • by tsalmark (1265778)
      I'd say Cleanliness is important for sex, or at least should be a prerequisite.
  • by DarkOx (621550) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:31AM (#27584577) Journal

    While the study of our relationship with the bacteria and other microbes that live inside us is interesting and valid its kinda dumb to talk about ourselves as ecosystems. We are another life form, that has a symbiotic relationship with those microbes in a larger ecosystem.

    We don't need words like symbiotic if we are going to think of ourselves as an ecosystem. Also just about any animal or plant made of more than a few cells is going to be an ecosystem under this implied definition. I am not sure how exactly we want to define ecosystem but something a little more complex than "any thing which something lives inside" seems appropriate.

    • by vlm (69642)

      its kinda dumb to talk about ourselves as ecosystems

      The dumbest part is everyone knows the only really bad part about exterminating a distinct species is listening to the environmentalists complain. The sun still rises on the rest of the living world, despite the T.Rex and the passenger pigeon being gone. Some other species steps into the empty niche. Maybe a change we like, maybe a change we don't like, but none the less life goes on mostly uninterrupted. For example, within our lifetimes, cod will be extinct, and I'll be sad, but I'll just fry somethin

    • by kabocox (199019)

      While the study of our relationship with the bacteria and other microbes that live inside us is interesting and valid its kinda dumb to talk about ourselves as ecosystems. We are another life form, that has a symbiotic relationship with those microbes in a larger ecosystem.

      We don't need words like symbiotic if we are going to think of ourselves as an ecosystem. Also just about any animal or plant made of more than a few cells is going to be an ecosystem under this implied definition. I am not sure how exact

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:33AM (#27584593)

    This must be why I hear those voices in my head.

    "Eat that donut"
    "Don't eat it!"
    "Eat it!"
    "I am bored"
    "Natalie Portman"

    I am joking.. or am I?

  • did you see that this is all based around an obesity study? this has to be the BEST reason-why-i'm-fat yet!

    "it's not me, it's the entire living eco-system of which i am comprised. and my DNA. and it's glandular. and i'm big boned."

    i think most of the people in the study were made of cake.

  • because it will kill some of these friendly bacteria.

    Just the excuse that I have been looking for to avoid having to hoover the carpets!

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by CheeseTroll (696413)

      Given a few years after installation, carpets are an entire ecosystem, themselves!

      • by Sique (173459)

        You read too much Carpet People [wikipedia.org]!

      • Given a few years after installation, carpets are an entire ecosystem, themselves!

        Indeed. Carpets, unlike proper rugs which can be taken out and cleaned, are pretty disgusting. I'd suggest to the OP that if he has carpets, he hoover them as often as possible if ripping them out isn't feasible.

        On the other hand, if he wants to do himself and the world around him a favour, he might consider refraining from using or buying any consumer product that has the word "antibacterial" on the label.

        Once upon a time i

    • by Lumpy (12016) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @09:49AM (#27585425) Homepage

      Just the excuse that I have been looking for to avoid having to hoover the carpets!

      Is that what women are calling taking a bath nowdays?

  • We don't have to reject one viewpoint in favour of the other - it is equally valid to consider a human, to take some random examples, a torus, a blob of slimy water designed to carry DNA around, or a highly organised colony of specialised eukariotes.

  • Good Germs Bad Germs (Score:5, Informative)

    by Kieckerjan (38971) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:41AM (#27584673)

    I just read Good Germs Bad Germs by Jessica Snyder Sachs, a fascinating, accessible and up-to-date account of roughly the same subject matter. Will change your view on bacteria forever.

    http://www.amazon.com/Good-Germs-Bad-Survival-Bacterial/dp/0809050633 [amazon.com]

  • by jw3 (99683)

    Human being are individuals. They have a genome (well, actually, two, 'cause of the mitochondria), they evolved, they form a population of interbreeding animals.

    That said, they provide an ecosystem to a large number of microbial species, some of which are symbionts, some are parasites, some can be both. In general, we cannot live without our symbionts, and our symbionts are depending on us.

    All that isn't news. This perspective on a human individual has been here for decades. What is new is that with 2nd gen [byu.edu]

  • Do you think we can pass responsibilities to our occupants?

    Since bacteria outnumber us ten to one, do you think they see us as oppressors, since our bodies don't seem to be a functioning democracy?

    Are the bacteria responsible for our preemptive strikes on the cookie jars and other resources found in the kitchen?

    "Boss, I can't come to work, my bacteria are on strike".

    "Don't touch me, I'm a protected ecosystem!"

  • by elwinc (663074) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:44AM (#27584693)
    You could have read essentially these ideas over 30 years ago in a book called "Lives of a Cell" http://www.amazon.com/Lives-Cell-Notes-Biology-Watcher/dp/0140047433 [amazon.com]
  • Yogurt (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mc1138 (718275) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:45AM (#27584715) Homepage
    My dad's long been preaching to me about the benefits of eating yogurt to add back in good bacteria, especially after being on an antibiotic regimen.
  • radiation (Score:3, Informative)

    by GregNorc (801858) <gregnorc&gmail,com> on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:45AM (#27584723)

    Makes sense. I read somewhere that one of the reasons medium/high doses of radiation kill you is all the helpful bacteria in your digestive system are killed, leaving you unable to process nutrients.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Just Some Guy (3352)

      I read somewhere that one of the reasons medium/high doses of radiation kill you is all the helpful bacteria in your digestive system are killed, leaving you unable to process nutrients.

      Well, that and the internal burns, shredded DNA, denatured proteins, and general nastiness that results from your insides being subjected to bursts of concentrated energy.

  • Viruses, too (Score:5, Interesting)

    by forrie (695122) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:50AM (#27584767)

    A recent program on NatGeo (Explorer?) hypothesizes that viruses are also a key part of human evolution.

    The "junk DNA" that we all have is likely the result of viruses.

    They've also discovered that viruses in the wild actually quite easily jump from species to species, too.

    In one of the experiments, they found a large amount of a certain virus in the womb of a sheep during pregnancy. When inoculated against the virus, the pregnancy would not complete.

    Very interesting theory.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by interkin3tic (1469267)

      They've also discovered that viruses in the wild actually quite easily jump from species to species, too.

      Some do. Rabies appears to infect most mammals, but that's an incredible range for a virus, and there is one virus that can at least tolerate being in a host from a completely different kingdom, don't remember the name of it but it can live in aphids and some plant species (also not sure which one it prefers). As I understand it, most viruses seem to stay within their host species though, it's typically a very lucrative niche. I'd guess it depends on the specific virus, some because of their mechanisms a

  • Humans are a skin disease of Mother Earth.
  • by Centurix (249778) <centurix@NoSPam.gmail.com> on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:55AM (#27584815) Homepage

    As a series of tubes.

  • by Ukab the Great (87152) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:56AM (#27584825)

    Or are we dancer?

  • by Wolfbone (668810) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @09:14AM (#27584993)

    Humans (just) human idea also referred to by Bonnie Bassler in excellent talk here:

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/bonnie_bassler_on_how_bacteria_communicate.html [ted.com]

  • Since when is there a difference? :)

    It's as stupid as asking if the whole planet is an organism or a living ecosystem? They are both too.
    Because fractality is a basic rule of nature.

    I am envious at editors and reporters. Their job is so easy. Take something homogenous. Use two different words for it. Or two different views on it. And form a false dichotomy out of it.
    And you got your controversy. Stir up some dust with it. And your job is done.

  • Superhuman hive-mind? Or menace?
  • I am obviously a superior human, because I have bacteria type r2-d2. All other humans with that bacteria type should join me, and then we can enslave those inferior humans who only have the thx-1138 bacteria type.

  • Which one of us will be first to make the web site to sell shakes made of ground up weeds and household plants that claim to balance the bacteria in your blood? I'm sure that shark cartiledge will be useful for this, along with rhino horn powder.

  • by peter303 (12292) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @09:59AM (#27585543)
    A billion or so years ago the forerunners of multicellular life made a devils pack with oxygen burning mitochrondia, thereby increasing their metabolic energy an order of magnitude over less powerful energy subsystems like lactosis and sulfur oxidation. This basically created animals with the power of locomotion. So I sometimes visualize a shadow "power body" inside my primary body of these teaming mitochrondia generating 90% of my power. This is not dissimular to prana in yoga, chi in daoism and the force in star wars. Not that I'm going to turn blue and start shooting electric bolts out of my fingers any time soon.
    • by DragonTHC (208439)

      you mean "midichlorians."

      Though I have to admin, my worms make me much smarter than before.

  • by peter303 (12292) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @10:09AM (#27585691)
    Its very difficult to separate out the different kinds of bacteria, identify them visually and cultivate them. Shotgun DNA originated by Craig Venter helps tell how many kinds of different bacteria species there are growing in different parts of the body. There are more kinds than people expected. Different locations of the body, gut, airways, skin creases, etc. have different ecologies.

    Shotgun DNA is a "similar, but different approach". They first map every piece of DNA in every microbe (but in pieces). Then they look for a few key sequences somewhat conserved among species, and note minor differences. This distribution of differences gives a count of species and relatives amounts of each. Later on they may connect these to actual microbe types.
  • by kenp2002 (545495) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @11:53AM (#27587003) Homepage Journal

    After reading through this I can no longer tolerate a sanctioned policy of genocide against an indiginous life form. Thus all bacteria and viruses must be protected like any other form of life. In our own personal ecosystem the use of weapons of mass destruction against said bacteria and viruses must stop! Save the bacteria, whales, dolphins, etc.) As delicate as the ecosystem is we must prevent mass extinction and stop polluting the ecosystem with toxic medication and antibiotics!

    Oh man the Earth worshippers are gonna run with this one... Gaia has a disease...

    How long till the last shread of reason is lost? Humans are machines, nothing more made up of lots of parts. You are just as worthless as a laser printer because you are no different. There is no free will, just complex biochemical reactions guided by DNA and environment. No love, just an interaction of mating protocols, chemistry, and complex algorithms running in your advanced CPU. YOu illusion of conciousness is noting more then a product of random sequences of programs surviving the evolutionary tread mill.

    Scifi got it wrong, the machines do take over, we mearly give up and turn into machines... No wonder the more "advanced" we get, the cheaper life becomes and the more we treat one another like machines...

  • by MikeURL (890801) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @12:16PM (#27587295) Journal
    I think there are places where bacteria clearly have a purely negative impact. Bacteria will quite comfortably form colonies in and around your teeth. These colonies produce calculus that pull the gums away from the root. I think these colonies also acidify the mouth in general and throw off the remineralization process of teeth.

    I had terrible problems with my teeth right up until the point that I started to rinse my mouth daily with hydrogen peroxide and (next) sodium bicarbonate before bed. The poor bacteria simply have no defense against this, and no they will never develop an immunity to HP, ever. My teeth are now more healthy than they were 15 years ago (about the same time the dentist told me I needed 5 fillings). My gums have all healed and the only problem i have is some persistent calculus. However, after some further study I believe I can deal with that using vinegar. That has a decent chance of breaking the calcium phosphate bonds by temporarily jacking the acidity of my mouth through the roof. The enamel should survive but the much weaker bonds of the tartar should break. In fact, at a lower temperature OR a higher PH the bonds in tartar ought to break quite easily. I suppose I'll know soon enough (I'm also adding a waterpik to the arsenal).

    Anyway, all I'm really getting at is that some bacteria DO need to be killed with vigorous joy. As a side note I'd like to say dentists are either stupid or evil. And finally I'd like to express how important it is to have a science background and to really THINK about how you can apply it to real-life problems. If I trusted dentists (ya know, because they MUST know better than me) I'd have a mouth completely full of poison metal by now and advanced periodontal disease. Instead i have a full set of healthy teeth and gums.
  • by relguj9 (1313593) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @02:26PM (#27588837)
    Make out with skinny chicks.
  • by psydeshow (154300) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @02:26PM (#27588847) Homepage

    So where is the pricey SoHo boutique I can go to to be cleaned out and re-populated with an exclusive culture grown by Natalie Portman?

    I know the economy is bad, but the bio venture capitalists are really slipping if this isn't an option by now.

  • by SiliconEntity (448450) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @02:53PM (#27589195)

    I kind of object to the notion that these bacteria are living inside us as if they are parts of our bodies. As I understand it, the great majority are in our guts; most of the remainder are in skin and mucous membranes that are somewhat exposed to the outside.

    The gut is not exactly part of the body. Topologically it has often been noted that the human body is like a tube or torus (a doughnut shape). Yes, there are several sphincters and other openings that can close off the gut, starting with the mouth and ending with the anus. But they open sometimes and they do offer passageway between the outside world and the inside. The gut is more like the skin in terms of how the body distinguishes the external world from its internal environment. It patrols its internals rather vigorously and attempts to destroy bacteria. "Outside" bacteria are tolerated, there is no immune system active outside the body.

    So there is still a very significant distinction between those cells which are part of our body, and those cells, including these vast numbers of bacteria, that are outside our body. The gut doesn't really count.

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