we are bacteria all the way down
June 1, 2013 10:44 AM   Subscribe

Some of My Best Friends Are Germs
It is a striking idea that one of the keys to good health may turn out to involve managing our internal fermentation. Having recently learned to manage several external fermentations — of bread and kimchi and beer — I know a little about the vagaries of that process. You depend on the microbes, and you do your best to align their interests with yours, mainly by feeding them the kinds of things they like to eat — good “substrate.” But absolute control of the process is too much to hope for. It’s a lot more like gardening than governing. The successful gardener has always known you don’t need to master the science of the soil, which is yet another hotbed of microbial fermentation, in order to nourish and nurture it. You just need to know what it likes to eat — basically, organic matter — and how, in a general way, to align your interests with the interests of the microbes and the plants. The gardener also discovers that, when pathogens or pests appear, chemical interventions “work,” that is, solve the immediate problem, but at a cost to the long-term health of the soil and the whole garden. The drive for absolute control leads to unanticipated forms of disorder.

Gut punch: Monsanto could be destroying your microbiome
...All of which is to say that there’s isn’t really a good health argument in favor of increasing Americans’ exposure to the chemical. There are, however, some pretty compelling reasons not to — and that’s where your microbiome comes into the picture. Even if we aren’t absorbing all the Roundup that’s on the food we eat, we are certainly exposing the residents of our digestive tract to it. And here’s the funny thing. While we don’t have the metabolic process that Roundup disrupts, many microbes do.

So, in short, we may be dousing our interior landscapes with a potent and effective intestinal flora herbicide. Oopsie.
posted by ninjew (24 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
When I think of our own personal "microbiome" I'm always reminded that I have a toothpaste I use at home that I can't travel with (too large), so when I'm out and about I use a different brand. I worry about this sometimes because I can tell my breath is different but also I feel a little weird sometimes and I've been known to get colds and flus while traveling more than when I'm at home. I've always wondered if it's because I temporarily changed the flora in my mouth, which started to affect all the other systems, and potentially opened me up to getting sick.
posted by mathowie at 10:49 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just listened to a really interesting podcast about fecal transplants from Stuff You Should Know, which makes it seem like we are only just beginning to understand the complexities of the human (and ecological) microbiome. It seems like this field is growing, as it were, and has the potential to really change how we think about medicine and public and environmental health.
posted by gubenuj at 10:56 AM on June 1, 2013

I was wondering if this was going to show up here. It's fascinating, the things we're learning about what happens inside us.
posted by rtha at 11:00 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Kinda makes me wonder if this is why lately, the more produce I eat, the more I seem to crave yogurt.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:01 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

This all sounds rather a lot like governing, actually.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:04 AM on June 1, 2013

Microbiomics is the newest, hottest field of research. It has been long neglected, I think primarily because it is so messy, both literally and intellectually. I've even dipped a toe in that water (ewww).
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:42 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yet the components of a microbiota-friendly diet are already on the supermarket shelves and in farmers’ markets.

Except.. if everyone in the USA ate 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day (which only about 1 in 4 currently do), there would not be enough, there is not enough grown by farmers to support a healthy diet for every-body. It's a world of haves and have-nots, those eating well can afford a limited commodity, the rest are fed bread corn and circuses television.
posted by stbalbach at 11:53 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

My microbiome is a bit too outgoing for my macrobiome's liking.
posted by srboisvert at 12:02 PM on June 1, 2013

If everyone in the USA ate 5 servings of (non-corn and soy) fruits and vegetables, the price of fruits and vegetables would rise, inducing more farmers to grow the same. Actually, just removing existing subsidies for corn and soy would go a long way.
posted by lambdaphage at 12:07 PM on June 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

I suspect more worrying than Roundup and GMOs, are things like HFCS and preservatives.

HFCS because it grows the wrong types of flora. Preservatives because they kill the flora.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:11 PM on June 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also, eat more fiber. Prebiotics are as important as probiotics. Probiotics (yogurt, fermented foods, dirt) get the right flora inside you. Prebiotic fiber feeds them.

Eat Moar Yams.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:13 PM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fermentation and bacteria (wrt cooking) are recurring themes throughout Pollan's well-written book, Cooked in case you'd like to read more :)
posted by raihan_ at 1:37 PM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I remember reading a long time ago that some of the germs and such that you pick up during your birth are carried throughout your life, and influence growth and development. That would make things even more complicated, depending on which continent, city, or even hospital a person was born and spent their early life in.

And, the science is still early, so I'm wondering if telling people to eat yogurt and other probiotics is just another health marketing tactic. I mean, if it's a microbiome, there's a need for a balance of different kinds of germs in your innards too, not just quantity.
posted by FJT at 2:00 PM on June 1, 2013

Oh yes, and the Smithsonian last month also put out an article on the Microbiome, including the slang term for fecal transplants, to rePOOPulate.
posted by FJT at 2:04 PM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lynn Margulis: endosymbiosis
posted by mondo dentro at 2:07 PM on June 1, 2013

My ex swore this happened - he and his previous girlfriend had had some kind of raucous party, or went out of the house unexpectedly or something, and had left behind a variety of foodstuffs - and when they returned, they first panicked because they saw all the stuff they'd left out which was now starting to turn, they assumed.

But then they took a closer look and realized -

* the wine wasn't molding, it was turning into vinegar.

* The apple juice was fermenting into cider.

* The milk was on its way to being yogurt.

* and a mush of oatmeal was supporting a colony of wild yeast and had become a sourdough starter.

He said they referred to it as "The Attack Of the Friendly Microbes."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:46 PM on June 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I can see the apple juice as a mixer, but milk and oatmeal are components in a "raucous" party?
posted by FJT at 3:15 PM on June 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

so … we should eat this?
posted by jepler at 3:25 PM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

milk and oatmeal are components in a "raucous" party?

I don't know, he was always a little square.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:57 PM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

if it's because I temporarily changed the flora in my mouth, which started to affect all the other systems, and potentially opened me up to getting sick

Absolutely, but I think that the brand of toothpaste you use has less impact than just a completely different soup of different subspecies of environmental microbes at different locales that your system has to take time to adapt with. Once you get inoculated with samples of the local flora they compete with your extant microfloral community and the equilibrium can shift rapidly. That and airports are terrible.

Then again, I remember reading a microbiology textbook from the '50s and the author had cultured samples of his own excrement daily over the course of a month or so and identified and counted the main populations. The ratios tended to be stable for a few days, followed by a violent ratio upset or the introduction of a new player into the top 5, swings back in the opposite direction, then a new equilibrium.

I think it was Bruce Sterling's Bicycle Repairman that posited roll-on deodorant that consisted of particularly benign bacteria meant to outcompete the bad-smell producing body-dwelling bacteria instead of just killing a lot of them with antimicrobials*.

There is a huge difference between antibiotics and antimicrobials. For example, bleach is an antimicrobial and bleach resistance isn't an easily acquired trait and is also effective against virus. Among antibiotics, there's bacteristatic and bactericidal. The former slows/stops bacterial replication, the latter kills bacteria.
posted by porpoise at 8:35 PM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

If everyone in the USA ate 5 servings of (non-corn and soy) fruits and vegetables, the price of fruits and vegetables would rise

You do see the problem there.
posted by stbalbach at 8:46 PM on June 1, 2013


The amount of fruits and vegetables (F&V) grown every year is not static-- it's responsive to the expressed preferences of consumers. If consumers started buying more F&V, grocery stores would order more from farms, and more farms would switch to F&V production, increasing supply. The increased supply results in a decrease in price. Not all economic questions are so easily answered by "Econ 101"-type models, but this one really is.

To get an empirical grip on this problem, consider that the average US citizen eats roughly half [pdf] of the recommended daily serving of F&V, so we're looking at an increase on the order of 100%, which is about $1/day on the margin. On the other hand, the acreage currently allocated for F&V production is on the order of 10%, so it's not like you'd expect a higher price for F&V at the new equilibrium (as you would if F&V were 100% of acreage, i.e. if it were impossible to increase supply). Moreover, an increase in F&V consumption means a decrease in consumption of other foodstuffs, which (excepting grains) are more expensive than F&V, or would be in a world where the federal government isn't heavily subsidizing inefficient land use. Wastage accounts for about 30% of all food purchases. I would expect produce to be highly over-represented in that figure, since it wastes so easily. Will we buy more F&V in the new equilibrium, or waste less? Finally, although we can assume that agricultural production is set in stone for the season, the use of F&V as inputs to other foodstuffs is not. If the price of whole apples jumped tomorrow, apple farmers could sell more to grocers and fewer to bakers and vinegar-makers. All the more so for corn and soy, fresh vs. as inputs to sweeteners and livestock.

So really, how much pain do you estimate consumers will feel in the season before we equilibrate? And what exactly is the alternative to this capitalist dystopia in which people buy F&V and farmers respond buy planting more? Does it assume current agricultural policy, in which farmers are literally paid not to plant them?
posted by lambdaphage at 8:23 AM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

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