Meet Your Microbes

You may think of yourself as a single being or a single creature, but your body is brimming with bacteria. Other than ‘you’, that’s about 100 trillion more creatures, more ‘bugs’, as they are called. They teem and brush up against each other, forming many microbial municipals in your mouth, nose, gut, skin and genitals. However, you’ve never properly met any one of them, because nobody can ever see a microbe with a naked eye. To get a glimpse of them, you would need a microscope. Yet, as small as they can be, their role in equipping us for life cannot be understated.

 

HOW YOU MET YOUR MOTHER’S MICROBES

Despite that our bodies are now home to so many microbes, when we were first made in our mother’s womb, we were without bacteria, and we were bathing in the warm and sterile amniotic fluid of our mothers’ uteri. It is when the water broke that we received our first microbial gift.

When a mother gives birth to her child, she bestows the new-born with her own microbes. They come from her vagina and near it, her anus. This means that the baby gets a double dose of Mommy’s microbes, both vaginal and faecal ones. It sounds revolting, but this microbial rite of passage is needed to kick-start the baby’s immature gut to digest breast-milk.

The vaginal bacteria that a baby gets are mostly lactic acid bacteria, and they are milk-eaters. They take lactose, a sugar found in milk, and convert it ultimately into simpler molecules—glucose and galactose—that the baby’s small intestine can absorb. However, although the baby can now digest lactose, she cannot yet digest a complex sugar in breast-milk called human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs). These HMOs need to be digested by a kind of faecal bacteria called Bifidobacterium infantis, which have also colonized the baby’s gut. They have evolved to digest HMOs without problem, and when they do, they release nutrients that nourish the baby’s gut cells, shore up the gut lining and reduce inflammation.

As you can see, the breast-feeding mother isn’t just nourishing the infant. In fact, it is her and her microbes that affects and builds the child. Yet, aren’t microbes also disease-causing criminals?

 

THE MICROBE-FREE LIFE IS NOT WORTH LIVING

Admittedly, infectious diseases like the bubonic plaque are caused by microbes, and they have been cast as villains for us to destroy, lest they destroy us first. But this urge to eradicate microbes is unwarranted, since most of them are either benign or beneficial to us. We need to abandon the thought that wherever microbes are, there is war.

In a study done by US scientists, mice were born into a world without microbes, and they continued to grow in a sterile environment. At first, they seemed fairly alright and nothing looked abnormal. But later, compared to their microbe-laden peers, these sterile mice had trouble on the inside. Their bones were weak, their guts poorly developed, and the blood vessels that tried to feed their organ systems, sparse. Perhaps most striking of all: their immune system was compromised. These microbe-free mice were miserable.

One way in which microbes make our lives worth living is that they play a starring role as they work with our own cells to modulate and balance our immune responses. This seems paradoxical, but contact with certain bacteria in the gut helps build the immune system. Once built, they continue to calibrate and tune it such that it reacts correctly to dangerous threats, but not overreact to harmless things—allergens like dust or pollen—from the outside world. Our microbes and the cells of our immune system keep each other in check, providing us with a strong and healthy immune system.

 

MICROBES MAKE MIGHT

We’ve seen that microbes which coexist with us aren’t merely hitchhikers. In some cases, they can even provide their hosts with extraordinary abilities. The bobtail squid, for example, relies on a single species of bacterium—the Aliivibrio fischeri—to provide a bioluminescent light source on its belly that camouflages the squid against the water surface above it. Thanks to such bacteria, the squid has an invisibility cloak to hide itself from predators.

In the case of humans, the Japanese harbour seaweed-eating bacteria in their gut. Compared to plants that live on land, marine algae like seaweed have sulphur-rich sugars that are hard for us to digest. However, the marine bacteria, Zobellia galactanivorans, have genes which code for enzymes that can digest these sugars effortlessly. They thrive on seaweed. So, when sushi made it into the bellies of the Japanese, these bacteria tagged along. And once these marine microbes found themselves inside the gut, they passed on their seaweed-eating genes to other gut bacteria through a process called horizontal gene transfer.

Unlike hereditary gene transfer which pass down genetic material from parent to offspring of the same species, horizontal gene transfer allows bacteria to send their own genes to other bacterial species. No other kind of living creature except bacteria can do this naturally. This unique transfer of genes has empowered the rest of the gut bacteria with this special digestive ability.

Nevertheless, discoveries like these only look locally at individual microbes. What about the other 100 trillion of them within us? A better understanding of the human microbiome was needed.

 

A GLOBAL MEETUP OF MICROBES       

Studies of our microbiome first began with Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who, in the early 1680s, had examined his oral and faecal microbes. However, it is only recently that the microbiome caught the attention of scientists around the world, and so the Earth Microbiome Project was launched in 2010.

Since then, crowdfunded projects aimed at studying the human gut microbiome have also been launched worldwide, covering places such as the US (the American Gut Project), UK (the British Gut Project), and Australia (the Australian Gut Project). These projects see any one person’s microbes as forming a community. So, rather than studying the microbes individually, the goal is to study the microbial communities collectively, and to understand how this teeming mass works as a group, as a microbiome.

In 2016, the gut project reached the shores of Singapore as the Asian Gut Project, in effort to get more microbial data from Asian people. This is because people in Asian countries tend to eat more fermented food, and it was discovered that those who ate more fermented food had greater diversity of bacterial species in their gut—a sign of a healthy gut microbiome. With knowledge like this, our intimate relationship with our microbiomes puts our bodies and lifestyle into a new context. Who knows, because of this, people may be inclined to eat more tofu in the future.

As for the doctors and scientists, they think that understanding the microbial life within us could provide vital insights into illnesses from heart disease to cancer. Ultimately, it is from these gut projects that they want to use the information collected to rationally target the microbiome for various therapies. For instance, some scientists are looking to harness the power of poop.

 

THE POWER OF POOP

Unlike our human cells, we can change our microbes for the better, and scientists are looking to do this via what’s called Faecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT). It’s exactly what it sounds like. You take faeces from one person and put them into the gut of another.

The basis of FMT lies in our gut bacteria, of which most are beneficial for us, as we’ve seen. They’re crucial for our body to grow and function properly, and they sometimes aid in digestion, too. However, if a doctor administers antibiotics for a patient for whatever condition, the drugs can indiscriminately kill off these beneficial gut bacteria, allowing a ‘bad’ bacteria, called Clostridium difficile, to take over.

When C. diff dominates the gut, they release toxins that can damage the colon’s lining and cause inflammation, resulting in a condition called Clostridium difficile colitis. Normally, antibiotics are used to treat C. diff infections, but for patients with recurring cases, antibiotics become useless and the condition can turn life-threatening. This is where FMT comes in: the patient receives a stool sample from a donor with a healthy set of gut bacteria, and the patient’s bacterial balance is restored. C. diff’s reign over the gut is over.

Although we might have considered microbes to be bad, it now appears that we can intervene and get more of our microbes working on our behalf.

 

A MICROBIAL MEANING TO LIFE

If the quality of our lives depends on microbes as much as they depend on us for food and a place to call home, we may need to stop thinking of ourselves as single organisms. Rather, every individual is superorganism. We are superorganisms, one consisting of us and our microbes. We are never without them, and because we live in intimate contact with them, we evolve together.

How can we come to understand ourselves without understanding them?

Origins

Origins

God

spoke, a big bang.

Atoms sprang, electrons emerging

from sound. Holding the strings, reverberating,

composing a timeless piece,

writing melodies

of life.

But little

He had to say and so came

silence. The universe expands, in effervescence.

He is kept waiting for a reply,

waiting for signs

of life.

Give grace

and let things come as they

may, on a lonely blue planet floating in space.

Molecules of the primordial soup

in a fray, for a coup

of life.

It is from

pure chance, really, that

random reactions soon made fishes and plants.

Creatures with unique features,

within the circle

of life.

Then came

Man, part of God’s great Plan?

Or were the Gods man-made? Faith starts to fade.

In questioning, they began to see,

much clearly: origins

of life.

6 horrifying and weird medieval medical practices

Originally posted on MIMS.

During the medieval period, medicine was extremely basic, crude, and often painful. It certainly wasn’t a pleasant time to be a patient, but if you were at life’s mercy, you didn’t really have much of a choice in terms of obtaining medical assistance.

Here are a few strange and horrific facts from the days when it was thought that washing hands meant you weren’t a real doctor.

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Laozi’s Notions of Wuwei and Ziran

In early Daoist philosophy, dao is a fundamental concept. From the ancient text of the Daodejing, consisting of 81 chapters, we may first understand dao as a metaphysical concept. In metaphysical terms, dao could mean the origination and principles attached to beginnings of life, material things, and reality. However, dao also covers meta-ethical ideas, which water down to concepts such as wuwei and ziran. In this post, we’ll be exploring these ideas specifically. And to better illuminate them, we shall consider a counter-argument from Confucian thought and see how Laozi might’ve defended his position.

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Three New Ways to Target and Treat Various Forms of Cancer

Originally posted on MIMS.

Treating cancer these days effectively doesn’t necessarily entail a cocktail of chemotherapy or radiotherapy for the patient. Often, the real challenge is to get certain regulatory cells out of the way, provide treatments when the time is right, or have a therapy that can give high doses of radiation safely. Here are three such new methods that are seeking to change treatments for the better.

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Remedied (science) writing – 2

#1

The oxidation of a sugar’s anomeric carbon by cupric or ferric ion occurs only with the linear form, which exists in equilibrium with the cyclic form(s). When the anomeric carbon is involved in a glycosidic bond, that sugar residue cannot take the linear form and therefore becomes a nonreducing sugar.

The anomeric carbon of a linear sugar can only be oxidised by cupric or ferric ions. If a sugar residue’s anomeric carbon is involved in a glycosidic bond, then that residue cannot be linearized — it becomes a nonreducing sugar.

  • Avoiding nominalisations in early parts of the sentence and writing it as a verb gives a sentence more ‘action’.

 

#2

Binding to plasma proteins, hormone metabolism and excretion regulates concentration of active hormones.

The concentration of active hormones is regulated by its binding to plasma proteins, its metabolism, and its excretion.

  • English syntax demands subject before object and human memory demands lightest before heaviest.

 

#3

Regulation of glycogen metabolism is different in muscle and liver.

In muscle, the end served by glycolysis is ATP production and the rate of glycolysis increases as muscle works more, demanding more ATP.

The liver has a different role in whole-body metabolism and glucose metabolism in the liver is different. The liver makes sure that glucose level is constant in the blood, producing and exporting glucose.

Glycogen metabolism is regulated differently in muscle and liver.

In muscle, glucose is broken down from glycogen and is used in glycolysis to produce ATP for muscular work. When muscle works more, the rate of glycolysis increases as more ATP is demanded.

In liver, glucose is produced from glycogen and exported into the blood to ensure a constant blood-glucose level.

  • This one was a tough one. Is glycogen metabolism the main point in the original? Because the following descriptions seem to suggest glucose metabolism.
  • And although it was easy to understand the sentences individually, as a whole it didn’t make much sense to me. So, I made glucose the subject of the sentences and matched their sentence structures to make them symmetrical to each other.

AI Watson and other nanorobots to help ‘detective doctors’ solve medical mysteries

Originally posted on MIMS.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. John H. Watson serves as the friend and assistant for the famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, who has an intellectual fetish for solving the most puzzling of crimes. But in the real world, doctors often play the role of a detective in the practice of medicine – to correctly diagnose their patients – a crucial challenge to ensure they can receive appropriate medical care.

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