Your funk says a lot about you
December 30, 2013 2:52 PM   Subscribe

Bacteria have a Hobo Code. Next month's Science News carries a pretty interesting overview about the cutting edge of microbial science, including recent studies showing "in many mammals a microbial community ferments various sweats, oozes and excretions into distinctive scents that reveal age, health and much more to knowing noses in a select social circle". That's right, microbes are posting status updates to each other through smells, sharing with other microbes what they've learned about host animals.
posted by mathowie (29 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:56 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

This vaguely cements my theory that Mad Men is actually a prequel to Osmosis Jones....
posted by sendai sleep master at 3:25 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Well I, for one, welcome our new microbe overlords.
posted by marienbad at 3:39 PM on December 30, 2013

So my body is one giant community of microbes posting to a social network? the microbe version of Facebook and Twitter?
posted by ZeusHumms at 3:41 PM on December 30, 2013

Wait, bacteria have twitter too?
posted by dreamling at 3:45 PM on December 30, 2013

twitter is mostly bacteria
posted by Wolfdog at 4:07 PM on December 30, 2013 [10 favorites]

My Googles aren't finding it, but there was a science fiction story I read decades ago with the premise that after humans moved into space, the ones who came to live exclusively on space stations and moonbases and such bioengineered themselves so that they could completely eliminate bacteria from their bodies and environment and thus avoid having to deal with armpit odor and bacteria-borne diseases. So consequently there ended up effectively being two separate groups within humanity who could never meet face-to-face, at least not without one of them being in environmental suits. Of course, the bacteria-free humans found the very idea of normal humans living with all sorts of creatures crawling around on them and inside them unbelievably disgusting.

Then there's Greg Bear's Blood Music, where a scientist intentionally breeds bacteria to become sentient and then loses control of them, and they start building cities inside of the people they infect.
posted by XMLicious at 4:32 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Possibly The Caves of Steel and other books in the same setting by Issac Asimov.
posted by sebastienbailard at 4:42 PM on December 30, 2013

I think this area has the potential to be the next big thing in biology, especially once we figure out how to selectively use plasmids to cull the intestinal bacteria that could theoretically be influencing your endocrine system or triggering autoimmunity.

Or usher in a new era of apocalyptic class biological warfare. Either way.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 4:45 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

twitter is mostly bacteria

posted by burnmp3s at 4:45 PM on December 30, 2013 [11 favorites]

OK, so smells are the bacterial Facebook but what is the their equivalent to Chat Roulette?
posted by Hairy Lobster at 5:09 PM on December 30, 2013

Possibly The Caves of Steel and other books in the same setting by Issac Asimov.

Huh. That does sound very familiar, even more so after reading the Wikipedia entry for it, but I think I would have remembered if Daneel Olivaw had shown up and I don't remember the tone of the writing being so Asimovy. Unless I was reading something that pre-dated Asimov's stuff, from the bit you linked to the details are close enough that it would have pretty much been ripping him off. Maybe it was one of the deals where another writer did a story in Asimov's setting, or some fanfic or something.
posted by XMLicious at 5:29 PM on December 30, 2013

Your funk says a lot about you

Avoid the funk? But the funk's gonna getcha anyway!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:49 PM on December 30, 2013

Bonnie Bassler tried to warn us, but noooooooo ... . Previously and previouslier. Bonus for the hardcore bacteria-petters who want more: Part 1 and Part 2.
posted by maudlin at 6:51 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd just like to register how much I really fucking hate the coy bullshit scavenger hunt that seems to still be a standard part of figuring out what the fuck popular science articles are actually fucking written about. This failure to make even the most basic of efforts to either fully cite sources or link to them is plagiarism in the meaningful sense of the word and a breach of what professional publishing ethics are for, even if journalists have somehow collectively forgotten it. Regardless, the hyperlink is now 50 years old and the half second worth of work needed to link to a scientific paper is all that would be necessary to communicate what they are talking about to people with the ability to interrogate it. Susan Milius of Science News, if you ever Google your name and find this please fuck that shit right off, hiding sources behind a scavenger hunt that doesn't always have a single solution like this is dishonest and only makes sense as a ruse meant to confuse people with a desire examine your work in a meaningful way.

The sources used can be found here,
Animals in a bacterial world, a new imperative for the life sciences [FULL TEXT HTML]
In the last two decades, the widespread application of genetic and genomic approaches has revealed a bacterial world astonishing in its ubiquity and diversity. This review examines how a growing knowledge of the vast range of animal–bacterial interactions, whether in shared ecosystems or intimate symbioses, is fundamentally altering our understanding of animal biology. Specifically, we highlight recent technological and intellectual advances that have changed our thinking about five questions: how have bacteria facilitated the origin and evolution of animals; how do animals and bacteria affect each other’s genomes; how does normal animal development depend on bacterial partners; how is homeostasis maintained between animals and their symbionts; and how can ecological approaches deepen our understanding of the multiple levels of animal–bacterial interaction. As answers to these fundamental questions emerge, all biologists will be challenged to broaden their appreciation of these interactions and to include investigations of the relationships between and among bacteria and their animal partners as we seek a better understanding of the natural world.

Cuticula Consisting of Scales Substance Call'd Worms in the Nose, the about Animals in the Scurf of the Teeth, the Containing Some Microscopical Observations, Leewenhoeck at Delft, Dated Sep. 17. 1683. An Abstract of a Letter from Mr. Anthony [FULL TEXT PDF RENDERED IN CONTEMPORARY SCRIPT]

Trypanosome Infection Establishment in the Tsetse Fly Gut Is Influenced by Microbiome-Regulated Host Immune Barriers [FULL TEXT]
Tsetse flies (Glossina spp.) vector pathogenic African trypanosomes, which cause sleeping sickness in humans and nagana in domesticated animals. Additionally, tsetse harbors 3 maternally transmitted endosymbiotic bacteria that modulate their host's physiology. Tsetse is highly resistant to infection with trypanosomes, and this phenotype depends on multiple physiological factors at the time of challenge. These factors include host age, density of maternally-derived trypanolytic effector molecules present in the gut, and symbiont status during development. In this study, we investigated the molecular mechanisms that result in tsetse's resistance to trypanosomes. We found that following parasite challenge, young susceptible tsetse present a highly attenuated immune response. In contrast, mature refractory flies express higher levels of genes associated with humoral (attacin and pgrp-lb) and epithelial (inducible nitric oxide synthase and dual oxidase) immunity. Additionally, we discovered that tsetse must harbor its endogenous microbiome during intrauterine larval development in order to present a parasite refractory phenotype during adulthood. Interestingly, mature aposymbiotic flies (GmmApo) present a strong immune response earlier in the infection process than do WT flies that harbor symbiotic bacteria throughout their entire lifecycle. However, this early response fails to confer significant resistance to trypanosomes. GmmApo adults present a structurally compromised peritrophic matrix (PM), which lines the fly midgut and serves as a physical barrier that separates luminal contents from immune responsive epithelial cells. We propose that the early immune response we observe in GmmApo flies following parasite challenge results from the premature exposure of gut epithelia to parasite-derived immunogens in the absence of a robust PM. Thus, tsetse's PM appears to regulate the timing of host immune induction following parasite challenge. Our results document a novel finding, which is the existence of a positive correlation between tsetse's larval microbiome and the integrity of the emerging adult PM gut immune barrier.

Mom Knows Best: The Universality of Maternal Microbial Transmission [FULL TEXT]
The sterile womb paradigm is an enduring premise in biology that human infants are born sterile. Recent studies suggest that infants incorporate an initial microbiome before birth and receive copious supplementation of maternal microbes through birth and breastfeeding. Moreover, evidence for microbial maternal transmission is increasingly widespread across animals. This collective knowledge compels a paradigm shift—one in which maternal transmission of microbes advances from a taxonomically specialized phenomenon to a universal one in animals. It also engenders fresh views on the assembly of the microbiome, its role in animal evolution, and applications to human health and disease.

Symbiotic bacteria appear to mediate hyena social odors [ABSTRACT ONLY]
All animals are populated by microbes, and, contrary to popular belief, most microbes appear highly beneficial to their hosts. They are critical in animal nutrition and immune defense, and they can serve as important catalysts for the effective development and functioning of host tissues. It also is becoming increasingly clear that they can contribute to host behavior. It has been hypothesized that one way they do so is by producing the components of chemical signals that animals use to communicate. We tested and confirmed first predictions of this hypothesis in hyenas, demonstrating that the bacterial and odor profiles of hyena scent secretions covaried and that both profiles varied with characteristics of hyenas known to be communicated through their chemical signals.

The Hologenomic Basis of Speciation: Gut Bacteria Cause Hybrid Lethality in the Genus Nasonia [ABSTRACT ONLY]
Although the gut microbiome influences numerous aspects of organismal fitness, its role in animal evolution and the origin of new species is largely unknown. Here we present evidence that beneficial bacterial communities in the guts of closely related species of the genus Nasonia form species-specific phylosymbiotic assemblages that cause lethality in interspecific hybrids. Bacterial constituents and abundance are irregular in hybrids relative to parental controls, and antibiotic curing of the gut bacteria significantly rescues hybrid survival. Moreover, feeding bacteria to germ-free hybrids reinstates lethality and recapitulates the expression of innate immune genes observed in conventionally reared hybrids. We conclude that in this animal complex, the gut microbiome and host genome represent a coadapted “hologenome” that breaks down during hybridization, promoting hybrid lethality and assisting speciation.
As always please feel free to memail me if you would like access to these or other papers related to the academic discussion that we are currently having with a link to the abstract(s) you want, an email address I can send a PDF to, and a promise not to distribute that PDF further.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:03 PM on December 30, 2013 [37 favorites]

"I think this area has the potential to be the next big thing in biology, especially once we figure out how to selectively use plasmids to cull the intestinal bacteria that could theoretically be influencing your endocrine system or triggering autoimmunity."
You're looking for phages, the viruses of bacteria. Plasmids are only really capable of being but so promiscuously transmissible and thus can only ever maintain very weak virulence even in artificial environments much less harsher natural ones. There are currently naturopaths in the Pacific Northwest experimenting with using intestiphage to treat gastrointestinal ailments with, at least non-blindedly and uncontrolled, reported success but as we get a better idea of which bacteria do what this is not at all inconceivable.
"Or usher in a new era of apocalyptic class biological warfare. Either way."
There are really only two conceivable uses for biological agents in war, using them as area denial weapons (like landmines) that can be dispersed where vulnerable personnel and/or civilians happen to already be, and anti-agricultural weapons that could be used to starve an entire people into submission the moment food stores run out. Agents that achieve these goals in such an inhumanly efficient fashion so as to be functionally un-improvable have been around for a long time now and sit in storage waiting for Dr. Strangelove to return. There is really no point in further development with new methods as they couldn't hope to improve the apocalyptic capacity for mass murder that we already have.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:34 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're right, I meant to say phages. My mistake.

As always, it's good to read someone take the time to rip into what passes for scientific journalism these days. I don't have the stomach for it anymore. Thus my poorly written attempt above at snark.

Thanks, Blasdelb.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 10:17 PM on December 30, 2013

It's good to have our anthropocentrism checked every once in a while. For all our impact on everything on the planet, truly, it's Bacteria's world; we just live in it.
posted by dry white toast at 12:18 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

"posting a status update" is my new code phrase for farting.
posted by mecran01 at 12:25 AM on December 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

Twitter isn't bacteria. It's something that bacteria created to talk to each other through us across larger distances. Common misconception
posted by lordaych at 1:06 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Blasdelb, I'm curious what your opinion is on the ancient-spirochete-bacteria-evolving-into-axons-and-dendrites thing proposed by Lynn Margulis. Not to derail, but that's actually what prompted my previous comment and then I saw you were here and was like "do I ask him? Do it! What's the worst that could happen?"
posted by lordaych at 1:11 AM on December 31, 2013

I've been fascinated by bacteria since my dad turned me onto his field briefly (microbiology, now more emphasizing virology) and loaned me a copy of Microcosmos, which is where I first heard the "10 bacteria to every cell" breakdown.

Reading this article prompts me to say a few randomish things:

The meta-organism idea reminds me of Voltron except on every possible scale -- macro and micro, millions, billions, all into one. Reading down I got the feeling of "silly people trying to establish if they are a part of us -- we're all societies, communities, complex organisms with little singularity behind the curtain" but then got to the closing...go team!

It also reminds me of dark matter vs. baryonic matter, and how I was taught in high school chemistry that the universe is literally nothing but protons, neutrons, and electrons, in much the same way that biologists have long taught that a mouse is stuff made out of mouse DNA. Of course, if you define the "mouse" to include all of the micro-organisms it depends upon, cultivates, and passes on, then it still holds, in much the same way that a "multiverse" containing multiple universes should still represent a single universe, if only because my pedantic human mind insists upon it, understanding that people can see it differently and it really doesn't matter so long as we all are talking about the same subject and know how we see things before we start flapping gums (define your terms).
posted by lordaych at 1:34 AM on December 31, 2013

Susan Milius of Science News, if you ever Google your name and find this please fuck that shit right off, hiding sources behind a scavenger hunt that doesn't always have a single solution like this is dishonest and only makes sense as a ruse meant to confuse people with a desire examine your work in a meaningful way.

You did scroll to the bottom where three of the cited papers are linked, right?
posted by euphorb at 7:05 AM on December 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

XMLlicious, I think the book / universe you're thinking of is Bruce Sterling's Schizmatrix , aka the shaper/mechanist stories. The Mechanists are cyborgs, while the Shapers use genetic modification and have to take powerful antibiotics whenever they meet with other groups.

When I read the book a few months ago I was surprised that he made such a big deal out of eliminating the microbiome--with everything we've learned in the past two decades, it's now probably the least plausible element of the stories.
posted by thecaddy at 7:23 AM on December 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

euphorb, I think the Science News link has changed. I remember an article with much briefer content and layout, and almost certainly no links at the bottom, when I first looked at this post last night. Or is that just what the phages WANT me to remember?
posted by maudlin at 7:28 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

The article could also mention that bacteria also have a 'bro code', a 'da Vinci code' and a tax code.
posted by Anything at 10:12 AM on December 31, 2013

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in (y)our philosophy." - Shakespeare, Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:46 AM on December 31, 2013

I think you've got it, thecaddy, thanks! I remember the term "preservationist". I feel like I came across one of the short stories that was put out before the novel, then maybe mixed up some details with the Asimov stuff after pulling up a synopsis or something while trying to find more from the Sterling universe later on.
posted by XMLicious at 11:34 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

nature: Human–microbe mismatch boosts risk of stomach cancer - "H. pylori strains more likely to cause tumours when they did not co-evolve with their hosts."

PNAS: Human and Helicobacter pylori coevolution shapes the risk of gastric disease
Theory predicts that chronic pathogens with vertical or familial transmission should become less virulent over time because of coevolution. Although transmitted in this way, Helicobacter pylori is the major causative agent of gastric cancer. In two distinct Colombian populations with similar levels of H. pylori infection but different incidences of gastric cancer, we examined human and pathogen ancestry in matched samples to assess whether their genomic variation affects the severity of premalignant lesions. Interaction between human Amerindian ancestry and H. pylori African ancestry accounted for the geographic disparity in clinical presentation. We conclude that coevolutionary relationships are important determinants of gastric disease risk and that the historical colonization of the Americas continues to influence health in modern American populations.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:49 AM on January 15, 2014

« Older Owlbears, rust monsters, and bulettes - common...   |   Tatsuo Horiuchi: The David Byrne of Excel Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments