Islands: The Microbiome Part I

by John Aitken

New Zealand is a collection of three islands.

Being stuck on an island has limitations. Travel is difficult; travel to Europe or the USA is a major undertaking. The internet has improved our supply lines, although it would be a very resilient drone that made it from Amazon in the USA to my house.

Life on an island is sustained by a complex infrastructure. Interdependence is the glue that results in sustainability. Sustainability, in turn, is ensured if the needs of both the population and the environment are addressed and met. The goal is harmony.

In New Zealand tourism is one of our exportable commodities. Last year 3 million tourists visited New Zealand and this places a burden on the infrastructure, particularly the environment, but also the patience of the locals who are faced with cleaning up after “freedom campers” who can be less than respectful of their surroundings.

Living on an island also forces awareness of the needs of others who may be less fortunate than ourselves. Perhaps this is why there has always been an underlying concern for our neighbours, and our fellow citizens. There is mutual benefit in a shared vision.

Socially, islands resemble huge organisms; isolated yet functioning in a collective synchronicity with each of their parts. The organic model is not new – a group of organisms working together to the benefit of society. Ants build anthills, bees build beehives, people build complex societies.

The phrase “superorganism” was first used by James Hutton in 1789 and was used to describe a number of organisms behaving as a single organism. James Lovelock, the chemist, proposed that the Earth could be regarded as a single organism (The Gaia Hypothesis) and this was eagerly grasped by the 1970’s counterculture as a hypothesis that had as its core a concern for the environment.

Microbiologists, fascinated by microscopic detail, added their sixpence worth by advancing the concept of symbiogenesis. This long word sneakily points to the prospect that every human cell is partly comprised of bacterial remnants, introduced long ago, and incorporated into the cell.  In other words, a good part of yours truly is the equivalent of the used parts division of the local Ford franchise. We are hybrids. Our power plants (mitochondria) come from bacteria. Eons ago, bacteria and single celled organisms sorted out a mutually beneficial alliance; food as an exchange for energy.

More recently this concept of bacterial slave labour in the human body has been bolstered by the exploration of the bacteria living on and in us (the human microbiome). At this point, the amateur biologist has several different departure points from which to explore the idea of the dominance of Man as a species. My personal preference is to see myself as the host of a teeming multitude of organisms with whom I generally get along with very well. A more revolutionary concept might involve the idea that I am the human equivalent of the ant-hill, with bacteria as the ants.

However, it is slightly more subversive than that. In my gut, bacteria manufacture and provide essential vitamins and amino acids that I cannot manufacture independently of bacterial activity. If I evict my microbial tenants then I will surely die. I depend on these products of bacterial growth for my continued existence.

Some amino acids and vitamins are also acquired from dietary sources. If I vary my diet, or it is depleted of certain vitamins and amino acids, then I will become ill. Examples include vitamin deficiencies and metabolic disorders.  These illnesses may also involve mood disorders. It is endless. I am just starting to become aware that The Aitken Hilton is a complex hotel. I have to keep my guests happy in order to remain a successful host. If I make the wrong move, then the guests will rebel.  A rebellion requires a trigger, and revolution destroys balance.

And through all of this interlocking and smoothly functioning systems we stroll. We are blissfully unaware of the fact that other living organisms are constantly working to keep the show on the road. In the ultimate circle of life, when we pass on, our organisms help to ease our return to the earth.

The realisation that the human body is a superorganism, finely balanced and vulnerable to changes in my system, opens new doors to understanding inflammatory bowel disease. It also cascades into thoughts about exactly what “the self” actually is. Are we really in charge, or are we just along for the ride?

And all of this brings me back to an Island.

John Donne, one of the great English literary figures (1573-1631) was keenly aware of interdependence. His marriage to Anne More was one of the great romances of the 17th century, yet the story is not well known.

Donne, the 17th century equivalent of a true party animal, was brought to his knees by a 17 year old girl, Anne More. They eloped and he was imprisoned because he married her against her parents’ wishes, so there must have been quite a spark between them. She bore him 12 children and died after giving birth to the last one.

All of the evidence points to their relationship being a close and committed one, and upon her death Donne became a Dean of St Paul’s until his death. Anne’s death changed Donne, and he reflected a great deal on death after her passing.

In the English parishes at the time, it was customary to ring the church bell on the death of a parishioner. This was known as “the passing bell”, and was a continual reminder of the closeness of death in the 17th century. It was this custom, and Donne’s poetic sensitivities that led him to write the lines that often appear in our speech, but which few know the origin of. It is the first description of the concept of the superorganism that I can find.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls.

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