We are a little world made cunningly

The ancients talked about the human body as a microcosm, as a little world.  Now scientists have shown just how true that is, how each of us is a world with millions of inhabitants:

They live on your skin, up your nose, in your gut – enough bacteria, fungi and other microbes that collected together could weigh, amazingly, a few pounds.

Now scientists have mapped just which critters normally live in or on us and where, calculating that healthy people can share their bodies with more than 10,000 species of microbes.

Don’t say “eeew” just yet. Many of these organisms work to keep humans healthy, and results reported Wednesday from the government’s Human Microbiome Project define what’s normal in this mysterious netherworld.

One surprise: It turns out that nearly everybody harbors low levels of some harmful types of bacteria, pathogens that are known for causing specific infections. But when a person is healthy – like the 242 U.S. adults who volunteered to be tested for the project – those bugs simply quietly coexist with benign or helpful microbes, perhaps kept in check by them. . . .

Already the findings are reshaping scientists’ views of how people stay healthy, or not.

“This is a whole new way of looking at human biology and human disease, and it’s awe-inspiring,” said Dr. Phillip Tarr of Washington University at St. Louis, one of the lead researchers in the $173 million project, funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“These bacteria are not passengers,” Tarr stressed. “They are metabolically active. As a community, we now have to reckon with them like we have to reckon with the ecosystem in a forest or a body of water.”

And like environmental ecosystems, your microbial makeup varies widely by body part. Your skin could be like a rainforest, your intestines teeming with different species like an ocean.

Scientists have long known that the human body coexists with trillions of individual germs, what they call the microbiome. Until now, they’ve mostly studied those that cause disease: You may recall health officials saying about a third of the population carries Staphylococcus aureus harmlessly in their noses or on their skin but can infect others.

But no one knew all the types of microbes that live in healthy people or where, and what they do. Some 200 scientists from nearly 80 research institutions worked together for five years on this first-ever census to begin answering those questions by unraveling the DNA of these microbes, with some of the same methods used to decode human genetics. The results were published Wednesday in a series of reports in the journals Nature and the Public Library of Science. . . .

Our bodies are thought to be home to about 10 bacterial cells for every human cell, but they’re so small that together microbes make up about 1 percent to 3 percent of someone’s body mass, explained Dr. Eric Green, director of NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. That means a 200-pound person could harbor as much as 6 pounds of bacteria.

There are about 22,000 human genes. But the microbes add to our bodies the power of many, many more – about 8 million genes, the new project estimated.

Those bacterial genes produce substances that perform specific jobs, some of which play critical roles in the health and development of their human hosts, said Dr. Bruce Birren of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, another of the project’s investigators. Genes from gut bacteria, for example, lead to digestion of certain proteins and fats. They also produce certain beneficial compounds, like inflammation-fighting chemicals.

Another surprise: There isn’t one core set of bacteria that perform those functions. A wide variety can do the same jobs, the researchers found.

That’s fortunate considering people carry a customized set of microbes, one that varies dramatically depending on where you live, your diet and a host of other factors. Your microbial zoos also can change, such as when taking antibiotics that kill infection-causing germs as well as good intestinal bacteria that may be replaced with different but equally effective bugs.

“We don’t all have the same bacteria although they all seem to have been organized to do the same things,” Birren said. It may be that our lifestyle and environment “induces each of us to have arrived at a solution that works for us.”

With this first snapshot of what normal looks like, studies now are under way to see how the microbes differ in people with certain diseases, in hopes of learning how to prevent or treat the illnesses.

via News from The Associated Press.

Yes, this could be considered disgusting, but I agree with the researcher who finds it awe-inspiring.  So even individual human beings are actually a community of separate creatures.  Reminds me of the co-inherence of the Trinity.

P.S.:  Who can identify the allusion in the title to this post?  Without Googling it?

The weird science of Light

More mind-blowing discoveries from quantum physics:

In the quantum optical laboratories at the Niels Bohr Institute, researchers have conducted experiments that show that light breaks with the classical physical principles. The studies show that light can have both an electrical and a magnetic field, but not at the same time. That is to say, light has quantum mechanical properties.

via Breaking the limits of classical physics.

 

Obeying the cosmic speed limit

Scientists have determined that neutrinos do not travel faster than the speed of light after all.  Last year, as we posted here and discussed here, an experiment indicated that they did, which would upend much of modern physics.  But apparently a timing device was malfunctioning.  Multiple replications of the experiment show that neutrinos do, in fact, obey the speed limit.  Modern physics is safe, for now.

Neutrinos totally do not travel faster than light, say scientists (+video) – CSMonitor.com.

All doubt about evolution will soon end

So says Richard Leakey, scion of the famed fossil-finding family.  From the Washington Post:

Richard Leakey predicts skepticism over evolution will soon be history.

Not that the avowed atheist has any doubts himself.

Sometime in the next 15 to 30 years, the Kenyan-born paleoanthropologist expects scientific discoveries will have accelerated to the point that “even the skeptics can accept it.”

“If you get to the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence, that it’s solid, that we are all African, that color is superficial, that stages of development of culture are all interactive,” Leakey says, “then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.” . .

Now 67, Leakey is the son of the late Louis and Mary Leakey and conducts research with his wife, Meave, and daughter, Louise. The family claims to have unearthed “much of the existing fossil evidence for human evolution.”

On the eve of his return to Africa earlier this week, Leakey spoke to The Associated Press in New York City about the past and the future.

“If you look back, the thing that strikes you, if you’ve got any sensitivity, is that extinction is the most common phenomena,” Leakey says. “Extinction is always driven by environmental change. Environmental change is always driven by climate change. Man accelerated, if not created, planet change phenomena; I think we have to recognize that the future is by no means a very rosy one.”

Any hope for mankind’s future, he insists, rests on accepting existing scientific evidence of its past.

“If we’re spreading out across the world from centers like Europe and America that evolution is nonsense and science is nonsense, how do you combat new pathogens, how do you combat new strains of disease that are evolving in the environment?” he asked.

“If you don’t like the word evolution, I don’t care what you call it, but life has changed. You can lay out all the fossils that have been collected and establish lineages that even a fool could work up. So the question is why, how does this happen? It’s not covered by Genesis. There’s no explanation for this change going back 500 million years in any book I’ve read from the lips of any God.”

via Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey predicts end is near on debate over evolution – The Washington Post.

Well, what do you think?  You creationists, if enough evidence piled up in 15 years to support evolution, would you give up your doubting ways?  Is creationism falsifiable?  Then again, is evolution falsifiable?  What evidence would convince an evolutionist of creation?  Or do both sides form their beliefs on other bases?

Are contraception opponents anti-science?

Journalist Laura Sessions Stepp at CNN says that people who oppose contraception are anti-science.  They are among those conservatives who have no faith in science and oppose Darwin’s theory of evolution.

via Anti-science and anti-contraception – CNN.com.

First of all, how can science (which is concerned with “is”) determine a moral principle (which is concerned with “ought”)?

Second, who are these people who oppose contraception?  The most defined group would be “Catholics,” not “conservatives” or even “the religious right” as such.  Certainly some conservatives and non-Catholics also oppose contraception, as do some environmentalists and nature advocates on the left.

Third, she lumps together religious liberty advocates, pro-lifers, and a wide array of health activists as being against contraception.

Fourth, what’s this about Darwinism?  Isn’t his theory of evolution about, you know, propagating the species, with the best adapted having more offspring than the unfit and so passing along their genes?  Doesn’t contraception get in the way of that?  Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that contraception goes against the theory of evolution?

HT:  Rebecca Oas

Cross-species contagious yawning

You know how when you are in a group of people and somebody yawns, and then other people start yawning, and then you too feel the irresistible impulse to do likewise?  Well, if there are dogs in the room, they too very likely will start yawning.

Scientists have studied the phenomenon of dogs yawning when people do.  Furthermore, dogs don’t have to see someone yawn; they apparently hear humans yawning, which makes them want to yawn too.  Researchers speculate whether this is evidence that dogs can actually empathize with human beings.  See  Dogs yawn when they hear people yawn, suggesting they empathize with humans – The Washington Post.

Now looking at this phenomenologically, I don’t recall empathy as a cause of my own yawning.  I don’t notice someone yawning, feeling his boredom, and expressing that by yawning in an act of emotional solidarity.  My theory is that in a group in which one person is bored or sleepy, the chances are good, since everyone is sharing the same experience, that other people are also feeling bored or sleepy.  When a person yawns, that reduces the social pressure to repress the outward expression of what one feels, an inhibition that disintegrates completely when more and more people do it.

Now that dogs can also share in this collective experience is intriguing.  Dogs are social animals.  They demonstrate pack behavior.  And, as we know from the Dog Whisperer, they consider human beings to be leaders of their pack.  If the group of people were to all of a sudden start running, I’m sure the dogs would join them.  Maybe it’s the same for yawning, although the meaning and the communication mechanisms for dogs remain mysterious.

Then again, it’s also mysterious why people yawn, what the connection is between feeling bored or sleepy and opening your mouth really wide.  Does anyone have any theories about all of this?


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