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There’s No “I” In “Biomolecular Network”—No, Wait…

Dec. 3, 2015|395 views

Are you ready to set aside your ego and admit that you are not really you? They say it takes a village to raise a child. And in the world of biology, they’re starting to say that it takes a huge community of invisible organisms to make up “you”.

It’s a paradigm shift, and it’s taking place right under our feet. Can you feel the ground moving? That’s the feeling that comes from recognizing, in the relative blink of an eye, that everything we used to think about the study of life—biology—needs to be amended, and approached from a radically new perspective.

In an intriguing new article published in the scientific journal, PLOS Biology, Vanderbilt University researchers propose a sea change in our thinking. People, plants, animals—none are individuals, they argue. Rather, given what we now know about the teeming communities of invisible microorganisms living in, on, and around us, we need to start thinking of individuals as “holobionts;” biomolecular networks comprised of the “visible” host, and its invisible hordes of microbes.

For too long, we’ve tended to ignore these fellow passengers who journey through life with us. But, from a medical, scientific, and biological perspective, we’re not doing ourselves any favors by ignoring the impact these creatures have on our overall health and wellbeing. They are an integral part of us, just as they are integral parts of every plant and animal on the planet.

"It's a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts," said Seth Bordenstein, associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University. Let’s say you have a daughter. When you gaze lovingly upon her, you’re actually seeing the tiny tip of a large iceberg. What you see represents just 10% of the cells in her body. The other 90%—consisting of much smaller microbes—is essentially invisible to you. Yet, it’s actually the far larger part of the whole.

This call to overhaul a fundamental tenant of how we think about biology has wide-ranging implications for us all. "One of the basic expectations from this conceptual framework is that animal and plant experiments that do not account for what is happening at the microbiological level will be incomplete and, in some cases, will be misleading as well," said Bordenstein.

Perhaps another aspect of this dawning realization that we are not alone will be a new respect for the contributions our microbes provide. "Instead of being so 'germophobic,' we need to accept the fact that we live in and benefit from a microbial world. We are as much an environment for microbes as microbes are for us," said Bordenstein.

As I’ve been saying for some time now, it pays to consider the impact your lifestyle choices have on your own microbiome (communities of microorganisms). The most beneficial gut bacteria, for example, tend to thrive on whole plant foods, grains and fruits. In contrast, less beneficial bacteria seem to favor simple sugars and simple carbs, and they tend to reward you for eating these foods by facilitating overeating and weight gain. So it pays to choose your friends wisely.

Seth R. Bordenstein, Kevin R. Theis. Host Biology in Light of the Microbiome: Ten Principles of Holobionts and Hologenomes. PLOS Biology, 2015; 13 (8): e1002226 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002226