Friday, June 22, 2012

The body as universe

Scientists say that there are 100 trillion microbes that call our bodies home. These are creatures, bacteria, that have co-evolved with us and that work to keep our bodies healthy. Because our healthy body is in their self-interest. 


So what happens when we take antibiotics? The medicine that may kill what is making us sick also kills millions, or billions, or trillions of those friendly bacteria that are our allies. It is a virtual holocaust which may, in fact, leave our bodies prey to opportunistic viruses or bacteria because our army of defenders has been laid low.


Our body's population of microscopic creatures is called the "microbiome" and I read an interesting article about it in The New York Times earlier this week. The article attained a certain relevance for me because I was getting sick at the time. It started with sinus pressure which then drained and gave me an inflamed and irritated and extremely painful throat. Fortunately, after 24 hours of that, my throat got better and the illness proceeded downward into my chest, where at least it has the virtue of not being so painful. But as the sickness progressed, I thought about the article that I had read and began to monitor my body's reaction to my first respiratory infection in seven years.


I decided early on that I wouldn't contact my doctor unless things seemed to be getting seriously out of hand. I would use palliatives to help with the pain - hot baths, cough drops, heating pads, the old standby Vick's VapoRub. I would drink lots of water. Well, I do that anyway. And I would wait for my body to heal itself. It seems to be working. I'm not ready to run any races, or even walk a mile, yet, but I can tell that my body's defenders are winning their fight. Soon, this physical presence should again be a safe place for them and me to be.


I've been giving this microbiome a lot of thought this week. I wonder what it is like for all those critters that live inside of me and on my skin. For them, I am a virtual universe, the only universe they will ever know, and they are in eternal war against enemies that might harm me and them. But what exactly do they "know"?


Thinking about that made me contemplate the Gaia principle or hypothesis which gained a certain prominence back in the 1970s with the publication of several articles and finally of a book called Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth by Dr. James Lovelock. The Gaia principle proposes, briefly, that all organisms and their inorganic surroundings on Earth are closely integrated to form a single and self-regulating complex system, maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. To put it another way, the Earth is our body writ large. It is a closed system that is self-regulating and seeks to ensure the health of the planet.


But what if this analogy of the microbiome extends not just to the planet but to the galaxy? The universe? What if we, as humans, are in the same relationship to the Earth as the microbiome is to our body? And our blue planet is in that same relationship with the galaxy and the universe? What if we are all just part of one unimaginably large biome? Well, scientists are actually seriously studying that possibility and, frankly, it makes as much sense as many theories I've heard about the order of the universe. 


Then again, perhaps I am being influenced by my own personal microbiome. I wonder - would I be a different person if I had a different microbiome? Is Rush Limbaugh a creature of his microbiome? Maybe we could slip some antibiotics into his soup.
  

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