The word colony is a derivative of the Latin colere, meaning “to inhabit, till, cultivate” . I was hoping it originated in our word for the large intestine, colon, but it doesn’t. Still, we can use poetic force to align the two: our guts are our garden, a colony of flora that we can cultivate; we can pay attention to it as we would a patch of ground - pull out the weeds, allowing the most desirable plants to flourish. Our bodies can be seen as synecdoche for the biosphere: an ecosystem that thrives in diversity and nurture.
Sometimes, as I clip my nails, or cut my hair I think, where does all this matter come from? It turns out that both hair and nails are made of the same stuff, keratin, one of a family of fibrous, structural proteins . Proteins are residues of amino acids, which are themselves ultimately made of elements like Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen and Oxygen. Proteins exist in all living cells and have a fixed lifespan - they are made - born if you will - and eventually they decay, or die. Thus the production and senescence of proteins is analogous to life and death itself. As my hair grows, the follicle requires more elements to produce more hair, but where do these elements come from? The answer, from our actual gardens.
The best place to find the kinds of chemicals and molecules we need for growth is where it is already being made: in other living plants and creatures. We call this source of chemicals, food. When we eat, our bodies assist in the process of splitting our food into its component parts by producing acids and enzymes. I say assist, because it turns out that the large part of this process, called digestion, is carried out not by our bodies, but by the bacteria that colonise our colons. When your dad cuts up your beef for you, he’s making it easier for you to do your job of making it easier for your bacteria to do theirs. To a bacterium, a massive piece of unmasticated brisket would look like a small planet. We cannot expect them to digest this, so we chew it up and throw in some gastric fluids to assist in breaking it down for them. Bacteria, it turns out, prefer soup.
It is fortunate for us that these kinds of bacteria live everywhere. In utero, the unborn foetus does not have bacteria in its developing gut, getting all its food conveniently pre-digested from its mum via the placenta. As they’re being born, most babies guts are colonised as they pass through the vagina, but C-section babies get their intestines brewing soon enough - from the air, from food; from everything they decide to bite; from sucking their grubby little hands. This is a good thing as it turns out that we simply cannot do any form of digesting by ourselves and when I think about this, I realise that without the assistance of other species, we would not last very long; we would not digest our food and therefore we would not produce any proteins needed to replace the old ones as they expire.
In the world of living things, there are many different examples of symbiosis, some of which are more obvious than others. In all cases, a system has emerged that is mutually beneficial for the survival of each species. I’ve seen ants picking up aphids and placing them at the top of broad bean plants. The aphids suck the juice out under the ants’ protection. Seemingly in return, the aphids secrete a sugary, easily digestible liquid that the ants can eat called honeydew . But the ant and aphid story is only one of mutual benefit. What about when the symbiosis is the only way that each species can survive?
Without getting overly technical, there’s something you need to know about the Portuguese Man-O-War , that floating blue-sailed jellyfish with stinging 10 metre long tentacles: it’s not a jellyfish. In fact, it’s not a single creature at all, but a colonial organism made up of several specialized versions of the same species , who integrate together so completely that at first glance, it appears that they are one. Thus, in the Portuguese Man-O-War, you have the creature who is the tentacles, the creature that is the reproductive parts, the creature who is the digestive system etc. These creatures are called zooids or polyps. It is important to know that each polyp could not survive without the others; it is a true self-contained symbiosis.
And the more I consider this, the more I come to realise that in one form or another, most if not all animals are comprised of more than one organism in some form of symbiotic relationship; it becomes clear to me, for example, that any animal in possession of a digestive system, including Humans, is beholden to the bacteria it carries. On one side, we do not need to do anything. Our guts are already a fantastic place for bacteria to thrive - warm, dark, wet - and by thrive I mean go about their business of being alive; we give them food to eat and our bodies reap the reward: useful molecules we need for our own survival. But on the other hand, if we pay attention to what our bodies need to flourish (as opposed to merely staying alive), it can do us no harm to become gardeners of our own intestinal flora - not least because of the bizarre times in which we live, where for example, plastic regularly makes its way into our diets.
When I regard my body as utterly bound in symbiosis, existential questions doubtless emerge; the notion that any organism is singular is put into question. The fact that whether animal or vegetable, most of what I eat has been alive itself, further compounds the feeling that I am not as self-sufficient or singular as I previously thought, but an ecosystem. The “I” with whom I identify is in reality a royal we; I am an us. Like a crazy man, I wonder what proportion of my consciousness is in fact owned and operated by the collective will of my guts. I suppose I like not to know any of the answers, my focus turns instead onto measurables - to inputs and outputs - specifically in this case, what happens when I eat something.
Moreover, I consider my bacteria as part of my healthy-making toolbox. While I’m not overly obsessed with trying to control their activity, or comprehend their chaos, I nonetheless hold that attempting to observe them (by measuring my health in response to what I ingest), can indicate the state of their health. And as we are in symbiosis, their health is a priority for me, as it evidently, logically, must impact mine.
I understand that living things are by nature competitive. I marvel at the Japanese Knotweed that has found its way to obscure parts of the canal on which I live. Originally from high altitude volcanic regions, it’s evolved to be extremely tough to survive in such a brutal environment. According to my partner Maggie, a horticulturalist, it can regenerate from a single living cell. Such a plant in the bucolic, temperate hedgerows of Britain is going to therefore explode with vigour. It does not intend to be so hostile, it is not a question of morality, it is simply that it is built to push hard to survive in its native environment. Similarly, I do not consider our intestinal flora to be imbued with moral intent; there is no “good” or “bad” bacteria. Yet as gardeners, we can choose how our garden grows - we want more petunias? Plant more petunias.
In the next part of The Human Colony, I will look at what bacteria species we can choose to ingest to help them effectively dominate our guts, providing us with additional nutrients and all kinds of interesting health benefits.
Graeme Walker, June, 2018
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