There are 100 trillion microbes that live in your body. Do you own them? Do they deserve the same protections as your own genes and cells? If someone genetically alters a microbe and claims that if you swallow it, it will let you lose weight, should that living germ be regulated as a drug?
These are a few of the questions I mull in a piece that appears in the Sunday Review section of today’s New York Times. I’ve been writing a lot about the microbial world for a few years now, but only recently did I encounter a group of bioethicists who are now pondering what sort of ground rules we should set up to govern science and medicine as we gain understanding and power over the microbiome. Check it out.
If you’re interested in reading more about all this, here are a few new papers (some free, some behind paywalls).
“Who owns your poop?”: insights regarding the intersection of human microbiome research and the ELSI aspects of biobanking and related studies, Kieran O’Doherty, BMC Medical Genomics 4 (1), (07 Oct 2011) info:doi/10.1186/1755-8794-4-72
Community Health Care: Therapeutic Opportunities in the Human Microbiome Justin Sonnenburg and Michael Fischbach, Science Translational Medicine 3 (78), April 13, 2011 info:doi/10.1126/scitranslmed.3001626
There will also be a book coming out next year edited by Rosamond Rhodes of Mount Sinai Medical School, but it’s not on the radar just yet. For now, here’s a powerpoint of a recent presentation from her research group (pdf)
[Image: Andrea Wan for the New York Times]
The folks at Wired recently asked me to put together a guide to the human ecosystem. You can get it in the October issue as a centerfold–the kind of centerfold that shows someone who took off the clothes, and then took off the skin. Bugs in your eyes, in your ears, in your gut, influencing your mind and health–they’re all there. Check it out.
On Friday, as the E. coli outbreak gained horrific speed in Germany, Newsweek asked me to write about how this epidemic came to be. Scientists still have a lot to figure out about it, but some things are clear–in particular, that the bacteria have great scope for evolution into new deadly strains, thanks in part to the shuttling of viruses between them. (In my book Microcosm, I explain how this is true not just for E. coli, but for much of life.) My piece appears in the new issue of Newsweek, which you can read online here. (One late-breaking piece of news that didn’t make it in, by the way, is the finding yesterday that the new outbreak appears to have come from bean sprouts.)
While I was working on my Newsweek piece, a reporter for the BBC called me up for an article on the good side of E. coli. I explained how much of how we understand about life itself came out of research on this typically harmless bug, and that the biotechnology industry was build upon its biology. That piece came out over the weekend. Check it out.
Last week I announced that I had 17 autographed copies of the US hardback edition of Microcosm, and in 85 minutes you folks cleared me out. There were a few cries of “Arg!” later on Facebook and Twitter, to which I responded that I still needed to deal with more books in advance of our house renovation. And so (voice turning crazy), here’s the next deal: we’ve got 8 autographed copies of the British hardback edition of Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life. It’s out of print, but between now and next Tuesday, it’s available for ten dollars from my Amazon store.
Again, here’s a quick description of Microcosm: In the book, I tilt at one of my favorite windmills–the definition of life. But rather than try to take on all of life on Earth, I chose one species–the one that we know best of all. That would be our gastrointestinal lodger, Escherichia coli, the little bug that helped build modern biology and launch the entire biotechnology industry. In my biography of this scrutinized germ, I explore the origin of life, our inner ecology, and the search for life on other planets. You can find out more about the book on at carlzimmer.com, or check out this review from Anthony Doerr in the Boston Globe, in which he calls it “quietly revolutionary.”
If we run out of these books, remember that the paperback and Kindle editions are still in print, and I have plenty of other autographed books to buy. And we still have too many books in the house, so more sales will be in the offing. Thanks again!
As I wrote on Monday, we’re boxing up books in preparation for some house renovations. You were kind enough to take 21 autographed paperback copies of At the Water’s Edge off our hands–in about three hours.
Well, we have even more books that we’d rather sell than pack.
Here’s our new deal: we’ve got 17 autographed copies of the American hardback edition of Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life. The hardback edition is out of print, but between now and next Thursday, you can buy them for the low, low price of ten dollars from my Amazon store. (Cue Crazy Eddie again!)
In Microcosm, I tilt at one of my favorite windmills: the definition of life. But rather than try to take on all of life on Earth, I chose one species–the one that we know best of all. That would be our gastrointestinal lodger, Escherichia coli, the little bug that helped build modern biology and launch the entire biotechnology industry. In my biography of this scrutinized germ, I explore the origin of life, our inner ecology, and the search for life on other planets. You can find out more about the book on at carlzimmer.com, or check out this review from Anthony Doerr in the Boston Globe, in which he calls it “quietly revolutionary.”
Thanks for saving us from the purgatory of boxing books. If our stash runs out before you get a chance to buy a copy, bear in mind that the paperback and Kindle editions are still in print, and I have plenty of other autographed books for sale.
Update 3 pm: Wow! We sold them all in 85 minutes. Keep an eye out for more sales like this in days to come.
For some time now I’ve been bewitched by the microbiome–those 100 trillion passengers that make our bodies their vessel (here’s a piece from the New York Times last year, and a long essay from last month). But I was especially intrigued by a paper that came out today in Nature. Scientists found they could sort people into just three distinct gut microbiomes, much like they can sort people into four blood types. Here’s my story in the Times, which will appear in tomorrow’s edition.
One thing that you won’t find in the article is some intriguing speculation I indulged in with the scientists I interviewed. Researchers have clearly demonstrated that microbes can influence their host’s behavior. They release molecules in the gut that travel into the blood and then into the brain. The bacteria that live in obese mice can make ordinary mice voracious. My fellow Discover blogger Ed Yong has written about how the microbiome can steer the development of mice to become more or less anxious as adults. In an upcoming review called “The Mind-Body-Microbial Continuum,” a team of microbiome experts ponder how our microbes might play a role in psychological disorders such as autism and attention deficit disorder. So it’s reasonable to wonder if our “bug type” influences our personality, much as the brain parasite Toxoplasma appears to.
I’ll be talking more about my story Thurdsay morning at 6:30 am and 8:30 am EST on the public radio show The Takeaway.
Update #1: Here’s the link to my appearance on the The Takeaway.
Here’s the accompanying caption: “Phylogenetic differences between enterotypes. a–c, Between-class analysis, which visualizes results from PCA and clustering, of the genus compositions of 33 Sanger metagenomes estimated by mapping the metagenome reads to 1,511 reference genome sequences using an 85% similarity threshold (a), Danish subset containing 85 metagenomes from a published Illumina data set (b) and 154 pyrosequencing-based 16S sequences (c) reveal three robust clusters that we call enterotypes. IBD, inflammatory bowel disease. Two principal components are plotted using the ade4 package in R with each sample represented by a filled circle. The centre of gravity for each cluster is marked by a rectangle and the coloured ellipse covers 67% of the samples belonging to the cluster. IBD, inflammatory bowel disease. d, Abundances of the main contributors of each enterotype from the Sanger metagenomes. See Fig. 1 for definition of box plot. e, Co-occurrence networks of the three enterotypes from the Sanger metagenomes. Unclassified genera under a higher rank are marked by asterisks in b and e.”