Seeing the World in New Ways

It seems we humans don’t quite understand our place in the world.

“Everything that you can actually see with your eye is just the smallest sliver of life on this Earth,” says Bonnie Bassler, professor of microbiology at Princeton University, in the New York Times video, “Seeing the Invisible,” posted below. “Most of life is invisible,” she says. “We still have this idea that we’re the most central feature of Earth, [yet] it’s the humans that are the bystanders. But now we get [that] most of life is microbial. If you look at the Tree of Life, only this tiny little part is every single thing you’ve seen.”

In all of life, only Animals, Plants, and some Molds and Fungi can be seen by us (top right). This causes us to overvalue our role in the world and grossly undervalue the role unseen organisms play in our daily lives.

Dr. Bassler continues: “Every higher organism is covered inside and out with bacteria. And humans would not be alive if [if it weren’t for] these little 24/7 partners. And they have all kinds of fabulous behaviors.” For example, they talk (do they gossip?). “We discovered that bacteria can communicate using a molecular language. We used to think that social behaviors were the purview of higher organisms. What we now understand is that bacteria were probably the first organisms on this Earth to ever communicate with one another.”

But why are we “covered inside and out with bacteria”? Should we try and get rid of them? To the contrary; the new understanding is that we need them to be healthy: they aid digestion, build nutrients, and help us fight disease – and more.

Remember, Dr. Bassler described bacteria as our “partners.” And just like when we mistreat our human partners, when we mistreat our bacterial partners, we will pay a price, and a heavy one at that.

A virus that eats bacteria. If we could see these things, would we take infectious disease more seriously?

A case in point is our misuse of antibiotics – poisons – which attack all our bacteria, not just the bad guy, much like cancer radiation therapy attacks all cells not just cancerous ones. So instead of being left, say, bald, weak, thin, and nauseous, we are left more prone to infection, obesity, childhood diabetes, food allergies, celiac disease, and even cancer.

A leading exponent of this new science is Martin Blaser, MD, professor of medicine at New York University. It’s all laid out very nicely in his well-received 2014 book “Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling our Modern Plagues.” The “plagues” being the above-mentioned diseases.

The overuse of antibiotics is also driving the rising tide of antibiotic resistance, the idea that we’re going back to a pre-penicillin era because bacteria have  figured out how to outsmart our antibiotics. That matters because, for example, more than 200,000 patients get infections every year while receiving healthcare in Canada and more than 8,000 of these patients die as a result. In the US, where they track individual pathogens, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) alone (one of many “Gram positives,” on the Tree of Life) causes more than 80,000 severe infections and more than 11,000 deaths every year. So without antibiotics, where will we be?

The solution to this global crisis, says infectious disease specialist Brad Spellberg, MD, will only come if we change the way we think about our microbes: “This whole thing about winning the war against microbes … nah! We’re not going to win a war against organisms that outnumber us by a factor of 1022 , outweigh us by a hundred million-fold, replicate 500,000 times faster than we do, and have been doing this for 10,000 times longer than our species has existed!”

In other words, when it comes to understanding our place in the world we are not who we think we are – and neither are they.

The invisible world made visible:

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One Response to “Seeing the World in New Ways”

  1. […] that you can actually see with your eye is just the smallest sliver of life on this Earth,” says Bonnie Bassler, professor of microbiology at Princeton […]

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