Anyone who knows me well, knows I have a secret fascination with the world of microbes. I love to find parallels between the seen and unseen.
By now most of you have heard that an entire world of microbes lives in and on humans. If you could pile up all your bacterial residents they would weigh in total about three pounds. While healthy people sport a rich diversity of these bugs, it is not just who is residing in your gut that matters, but also what genes these bacteria carry. That is because your body borrows these bacterial genes for to perform various functions that you cannot manage on your own. For example, bacterial genes enable us to convert otherwise indigestible fibers into key molecules which regulate our level or inflammation, and how efficiently we store calories.
The collection of these bacteria in our gut plus the genes they carry constitute what is known as the microbiome. Each person has a microbiome that is as unique as their own fingerprint. The Human Genome Project has isolated about 25K human genes, and our genes differ from each other by a mere .1%. In other words, in terms of human genes we are 99.9% identical to the person sitting next to us, or to a person on the opposite side of the world, for that matter.
Our microbial genomes, however, introduce an incredible array of genes for us to use. If you compare your own personal collection of bug genes with your neighbor’s, you will find that you are only about 10% similar.
This makes me wonder whether our own sense of uniqueness might somehow relate to the thousands of genes residing in our microbial companions.
Even insects are colonized by bacteria, and like us they rely on their microbe’s genes to perform essential functions. The mealy bug has a bacterium that lives inside it called Tremblaya princeps. This bacterium has a very small and simple genome as you might imagine befits the bug of a bug.
In Horton Hears a Who fashion, if we look closely at the relationship of the mealy bug to Tremblaya princeps, we find that the bacterial genome is too simple and is missing key genes necessary for the mealy bug’s survival. Look even more closely, or perhaps listen as Horton did, and you will find another bacterium, Moranella endobia. This special little bug actually lives within Tremblaya princeps. A most marvelous discovery has been made about this genome within the genome of the mealy bug. The genome of Moranella endobia contains the exact missing genes absent from Tremblaya princeps, the exact ones the mealy bug needs to survive.
This is evidence of one of life’s most basic truths: success is often found when we rely on community to provide the missing pieces. Mutualism, synergism, cooperation, collaboration, tolerance, call it what you will. It all comes down to the same thing: we need each other.
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