So much for being human. Over the last two hundred years humanity has gone from being the child of god, to an evolving mammal, and after a few more intermittent steps we have emerged as mere bacterial hosts. Welcome to the brave new world. I am my bacteria, and viruses, and fungi. A group of scientists from around the world successfully identified the nearly 3.3 million genes of the bacteria living in the human gut. By comparison I understand that humans have a paltry 23,000 genes. Or, to put it another way there are genes enough in your gut to make another 143 people. With that in mind it’s not at all surprising that people are getting heavier.
A veritable garden of microorganisms – our microbiome — has sprouted in our guts. Apparently, much of this helps us digest food and keep our body ticking over in good shape. In fact, if we didn’t offer intestinal hospitality to these little critters we’d likely perish. So, we had better be careful how we treat our close neighbors. In an effort to keep our guts in good shape some people take probiotics. What, you might ask is a probiotic? The National Institutes of Health offered the helpful description of probiotics as “friendly bacteria”, the kind of bacteria you’re always happy to have. I like to think of them as bacteria with a smile. The Mayo Clinic, another venerable source for medical information described how probiotics work with prebiotics.
What are prebiotics you ask? Always ready with a helpful answer the Mayo Clinic described prebiotics as non-digestible carbohydrates, which sounds an awful lot like cardboard, but apparently isn’t. Prebiotics link with probiotics creating synbiotics. At first I thought this was a moral statement, as somehow the biotics had behaved badly. It turns out yogurt is a synbiotic – imagine that.
Probably like you the only biotic I really ever thought much about was anti. Alexander Fleming, not be confused with Ian of James Bond fame, discovered antibiotics. A Scotsman by birth, a physician by training and a pack rat by inclination he stumbled across the discovery of penicillin in his lab in 1929. Converting this discovery into something usable fell to two Oxford University researchers, Ernst Boris Chain and Howard Florey. Both men were escapees – Chain, a German Jew, from Nazi Germany and Florey from Australia. All three won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945.
Since then Fleming won the popular credit for penicillin, leaving Chain and Florey out in the cold. If people think about such things as “who invented penicillin?” they usually answer “Fleming”. Of course, most don’t think about the answer to the question “who invented penicillin?” and if asked reply with “please pass the ketchup”. Professor Chain has slipped into oblivion, which I believe is what happens to people when they die. Florey, however, has been resurrected. In recent years, through a fit of national pride, many Australians have embraced Florey as the ‘meaningful discoverer’ of antibiotics. When in Sydney or Melbourne, ask who invented antibiotics and the answer will always include Howard Florey. Some claim him with such pride that Fleming gets erased entirely from history. The Australian Howard Florey’s importance is lionized from Yackandandah to Mullumbimby to Woolloomoloo and ending at Noosa.
Florey never lived again in the land of his birth. For the majority of his sixty-nine years he lived in Oxford, England. It is said, probably by Australian nationalists, that Florey never lost his Aussie accent. He may have, for all I know, persisted in many habits learned at his mother’s knee. Breakfast likely consisted of a cup of tea and Vegemite on toast. Vegemite, for those who live in a cave and can’t see what they’re eating, is a dark brown tar-like substance made from yeast extract. In the jar it has the appearance of an industrial lubricant. Connoisseurs spread a thin salty film over toast, usually with a bit of butter too. Even before they can walk Aussie children consume Vegemite. To the un-indoctrinated it looks suspiciously like the child pulled the toast out of their diapers.
My son used to eat Vegemite, though I never saw him pull it from his diapers. I did not grow up being culturally indoctrinated into the world of Vegemite, so it took some time before I acquired the art of preparing Vegemite on toast. Early in our marriage my Australian wife asked me to make Vegemite toast. Born an American I approached Vegemite as if it were peanut butter. Therefore, I ladled large amounts of brown breakfast glue onto toast. Taking one look at the breaded goop she flung it against the wall informing me, with the subtlety that only a former Australian prison guard could muster, that my technique lacked a certain delicacy. While I have gained mastery in applying Vegemite to toast, I have yet to acquire a taste for the stuff.
Despite its unpleasant appearance, smell and taste Vegemite redeems itself as a food source being very high in B complex vitamins. Of all the B vitamins Vegemite omits only one, vitamin B12. Cobalamin, another name for vitamin B12, is unlike its B cousins. B12 requires bacteria for its manufacture. People deficient in B12 experience fatigue, depression and can even have permanent neurological damage. I am sure I am B12 deficient. Another similar goo known as Marmite is more commonly found in New Zealand. Unlike its Australian cousin, Marmite does have vitamin B12. Aussies and Kiwis in fits of sibling rivalry seek out new ways to denigrate one another. On nutritional grounds New Zealand’s marmite wins – their salty brown paste contains the complete vitamin B family, though on any sensible taste basis both Australia and New Zealand lose.
Increasingly scientists are identifying new and unexpected ways in which our gut bacteria and fungi play a vital role in making us who we are. Take the jolly work of Drs. Claus and Nicholson. The gift of their research suggests that the gut microbiome determine how quickly calories burn. Want to lose weight, get some bacteria. It used be that fat was really just having big bones, then it was a slow metabolism, and ultimately it was your bulging genes. Now, we have a new culprit, chubby bacteria. Manipulating our microbiome may prove to be a big money maker too. Someday, not too far from now, a researcher will discover that bacteria gives you a winning smile, gets rid of body odor, or enhances your natural attractiveness.
Aldous Huxley had it right when he wrote, “I am I, and wish I wasn’t.” Just so. Whole species of bacteria and fungus call my stomach and intestines home. They live, give birth, raise families, grow old and die. Without them, I feel lonely. Too much bacteria, or the wrong sort, and things start to look poorly. So much for the rugged individual – I am what my microbiome makes me.