Monday, July 27, 2009

A Flux of Matter

Within the last week I’ve come across two articles each of which makes the point that the human body carries, inside and out, ten times as many bacteria as it has cells. We have somewhere between 60 to a 100 trillion cells. The numbers below begin to be as great as those in the astronomical above. The source I’ve managed to locate is a New York Times blog entry by Olivia Judson entitled “Microbes ‘R’ Us.” I can’t locate the second one—nor yet reports of the unveiling of some new scientific paper—hence I assume that Judson was probably the source of the second fragment I saw somewhere else.

Judson’s blog differs from earlier stories of this sort in one respect alone—namely its estimate of a total upper boundary of the number of bacteria in or around the body. Not that anyone has ever really counted the critters, but the human mind loves factoids, and soon everyone will know about the quadrillion bacteria we carry without so much as bending under the weight. The mere fact that we carry bacteria by the billions, trillions has been known for quite some time, of course. Our digestive functions vitally depend on bacterial cultures. The bacteria feed on our food, transform it, and we digest the “treated” product much more easily. Such bacteria are called commensals, a word coined from Latin rooting literally meaning “with-eaters.” When antibiotics destroy too many of these helpful parasites, we are in trouble until they are reintroduced and multiply.

Bodies may be likened to standing swirls or vortices of matter, analogous to constant swirls created in flowing water by structures on the river bed that cause turbulence below and on the surface. Matter constantly flows in and out of me—my breath for one. I’m constantly losing matter whenever I so much as touch something; I gain it back as I breathe, eat, drink. My cells have a finite life and are replaced. In each of my cells tiny power-plants, the mitochondria, have their own DNA and cycles of life; they are true symbionts. If I had instruments fine enough to see and measure at the elemental level, my body would extend a vast distance from its core, what I call the body, because I radiate heat, and matter escapes from me and floats away into the air. Not least I host—and benefit from—vast colonies of independent living things. To the extent that my health depends on them, are they really separate from me? Or part of the body? Where, if anywhere, do we draw the line? What, if anything, do I mean by me. This swirl, this standing wave of turbulence?

These are the kinds of thoughts young people think—and those who’ve failed to grow up or haven’t simply accepted the current explanations and therefore are still curious. Heraclitus (535-475 BC) has provided one of the answers—the one that captures all of the above: “Everything flows, nothing stands still.” But that’s the sound of one hand clapping. And for balance I need another hand.


  1. And I see there is some ebb and flow between blogs too making the outlines difficult to capture...This is actually a post for Borderzone. Or perhaps Lamarotte with its interest in numbers.
    Speaking of cells, I was both appauled and hrilled to read that some Chinese biologists have managed to breed adult mice capable of reproduction not from stem cells but from adult cells proving that their pluripotentiality still exists and reducing the ethical problems of using cells taken from embryos (should the plural use an e, like tomoto, I wonder?). New puzzle : how many bacteria can ride on the back of your basic stem cell (redundant?) or how many embryos does it take to carry a quadrillion saprophytes? Michelle

  2. Ghulf Genes does have a few entries on scientific subjects. Click on "Evolution" and "Science" in the index to see what is there. The tension between science and religion is a cultural matter, indeed peculiar to our times with aggressive secular and fundamentalist camps spoiling to fight at every turn, by preference in the courts. At higher reaches there is no problem—but lots of interest.

    By the way, now that you've managed to convince Google to put your picture on the screen as a "follower," you could comment in some category other than "Anonymous." You're one of the least anonymous people I know...