Our Inner Self

Richard Gettner is the anti-hero of Christopher Fry’s wonderful play The Dark is Light Enough, set in the Austro-Hungarian war of 1848. Viewing himself as a failed author, failed husband and all-round disaster, he’s just absented himself from the Austrian Army on the basis of not being too nifty at soldiering either. Their minions are hot on his heels, intent on meting out the retribution that the military traditionally reserve for deserters, and he’s taken refuge in the family home of his former wife. In a tête á tête with her she rebukes him for his knack of self-destruction and points out that his book was actually quite well received and wasn’t really a failure. All Gettner’s frustration then bursts forth in a tirade of brutal philosphising:

‘Is there another

Word in the language so unnecessary

As ‘fail’ or ‘failure’?

No one has ever failed to fail in the end;

And for the very evident reason

That we’re made in no fit proportion

To the universal occasion; which, as all

Children, poets and myth-makers know,

Was made to be inhabited

By giants, fiends, and angels of such size

The whole volume of human generations

Could be cupped in their hands;

And very ludicrous it is to see us,

With no more than enough spirit to pray with,

If as much, swarming under gigantic

Stars and spaces.’

Fry deserves to be remembered as one of the great poetic wordsmiths of the English language, if only for The Dark is Light Enough but, had he known that nine out of ten cells in our bodies are bugs, he might have added a final blast to his demolition of the human condition:

Our failings should not surprise as we are but a sinister symbiosis,

More bacterial than human,

Helpfully poised such that when our hour is done

The microbial hordes surge forth to reduce us to our component parts.

bacteria and virus cartoon

The range of the hordes

Our rising preoccupation with the bug army (see it’s a small world & The Best Laid Plans In Mice and Men …) has been promoted by several recent studies that have propelled our ‘inner organism’ from the bowels of biology into the limelight. The story is somewhat fragmented but it’s a good time to see if we can make sense of the current threads.

We’ve known for many years that a motley collection of microorganisms are happy residents in most of our nooks and crannies, ranging from tummy buttons and through the skin, to saliva and our guts. They include bacteria and fungi, they’ve become known as the human microbiome (or microbiota), are said to outnumber human cells 10 to 1 and, all-told, can be viewed as a co-evolved ‘super-organism’ that has many benefits, including making our metabolism more efficient and hence improving nutrition. However, as with everything else in biology, this close relationship is a balancing act, the disturbance of which carries risks for disease development.

It’s critical to note that this vast microbial army, toiling away on our behalf in the dungeon of our innards, mostly dwelling in our gut, is a really mixed lot. It’s estimated to include about 700 different species of bacteria, of which perhaps thirty or forty species make up the bulk. It’s a bit like a mini Great Barrier Reef, well known as the world’s largest coral reef system and extraordinary in that, although it’s made up of billions of tiny organisms, the thing can behave in an integrated way, most dramatically illustrated by mass spawning.

Within the gut there are two major sub-families of microorganisms (Bacteroidetes (Bs) and Firmicutes (Fs)). Although more close-knit genetically speaking, each of these still includes many different classes of microbe. So, they’re a bit of a rabble but, by and large, not only are they harmless, they actually play a vital part in keeping us healthy.

Bacterial army manoeuvres

The power of DNA sequencing means that we can now interrogate our inner armies as to their make up under different conditions, because each type of microbe has a distinctive genome. The first thing to emerge is a dramatic shift in the balance between the major sub-families in obese individuals, be they mice or humans. That is, obese animals have about half the number of Bs and double that of Fs, compared to normal. And the link here is that the bug switch alters the pool of genes available, the upshot being increased energy harvest from nutrients consumed. In other words the switch helps animals get fatter.

It’s possible to breed mice that do not have any gut bugs and ask what happens when you transfer a colony from another animal. Bacteria-free mice on receipt of a normal gut army promptly double body fat: microbiota transferred from obese mice makes ’em twice as fat and, remarkably, human gut microbes from someone who’s obese also makes mice obese, if fed a high-fat rather than a normal diet.

Chemical warfare

Because we use antibiotics on a massive scale to control infections, we might ask whether they cause the good guys to suffer what the military call collateral damage – the point being that antibiotics don’t target bacteria on the basis of whether they’re good for us or potentially fatal. Inevitably, it turns out that ‘good guys’ do get hit by some antibiotics, and when this happens mice gain weight and build up fat. Unsurprisingly, a high-fat diet makes things worse. The sequence is that the drug changes the balance in microbiota before mice become obese and – a real shock – one course of antibiotic treatment imprints these effects on the animal permanently: it acts for life.

To clever for our own good

In our panic to avoid obesity and still pander to our sweet tooth, mankind has taken to using artificial sweeteners on a massive scale in the mistaken belief that these low-calorie agents do no harm. Only recently has this come to light as yet another example of the old adage about there being no such thing as a free lunch. It’s remarkable: saccharin, the most commonly used artificial sweetener, causes big shifts in the proportions of different types of gut bacteria – some increasing whilst others go down – the overall effect again being much more efficient energy harvesting from food. This is a direct effect of saccharin on the bugs, blocked by commonly used antibiotics.

The story so far

The regiments from which our foot soldiers are drawn (i.e. the species that form the microbiota) affect our metabolism and in particular can influence obesity – and that’s inextricably linked with type 2 diabetes and heart disease. With that in mind, it seems obvious that upsetting them with drugs is a risky business. What’s more, seemingly harmless food supplements can also be fraught with danger.

Marching to a beat

Yet another amazing feature of our inner army is that it keeps time. That is, the abundance of different sub-types fluctuates in synchrony with the day/night cycle. Put another way, it marches to a circadian rhythm along with many other physical, mental and behavioral changes that respond mainly to light – and hence roughly follow a 24-hour cycle. These can be big changes in composition: a particular type of bug can double in amount in 6 hours and return to its initial level by 6 hours later. One of the most familiar examples of the importance of biological rhythms comes from upsetting them by flying long distances on an east–west axis. Sure enough, mice have the same problem and, just like us, their clock is disturbed by jet lag (rather than shuttling them business class across the Atlantic you can simulate the effect simply by shifting the light-dark cycle under which they live forwards or backwards by 8 hours every three days). This largely blocks microbiota rhythmicity, the overall effect being to reduce the total number of bacteria. This in turn raises blood sugar level and the mice become obese. These events are absolutely dependent on what has happened to the microbiota because they are replicated in germ-free mice after transfer of jet-lagged faeces.

That’s more astonishing than might appear at first glance because it places the daily variation in gut bug populations alongside the basic circadian rhythms of the sleep-wake cycle, body temperature and other important functions. Circadian rhythms are driven by a ‘master clock’ in the brain that coordinates all the body clocks so that they are in synch. Four proteins are at the heart of the clock (CLOCK and BMAL1, highly expressed during the light phase, and cryptochromes (CRYs) and period proteins (PERs) expressed in the dark phase). These regulate the expression of many genes, thereby controlling the overall response (see Twenty More Winks). The implication is, therefore, that far from being a kind of add-on that occasionally gets upset, our microbiota play central role in a healthy body.

A recent example of it doing just that comes from another mouse model showing our ‘inner organism’ acting to protect against bacteria from the outside world. In response to infection, cells that line the small intestine switch on the production of a particular sugar (fucose): that is then released from the cells and consumed by members of the microbiota – this novel energy source seemingly helping the host to survive the onslaught of infectious microorganisms.

And finally …

All this stuff about germs being our best friends is riveting but what about the important question? Well, there appears to be a complex interaction between diet, microbial metabolism and colorectal cancer, with bacteria able to make some agents that protect against cancer and some others that drive carcinogenesis. There’s evidence that a wide range of tumours can be promoted by transferring microbiota to germ-free mice and, on the other hand, that depleting intestinal bacteria reduces the development of liver and colon cancers.

Space invaders

Personal space is, apparently, a big thing for many of us these days. So big that ‘scientists’ have had a go at measuring it – they never miss an opportunity do they? Actually, boffins being boffins, they measured something called the defensive peripersonal space (DPPS) – a ‘vital safety margin surrounding the body’ – by sticking a pair of electrodes to the wrists of volunteers who held their hands different distances from their faces whilst receiving bursts of current through the electrodes. That made them blink (!) and the nearer the hand to the face the more they blinked, as the shock was perceived to be a greater threat to their face. There is, seemingly, a sharp boundary: up to somewhere between 20 cm and 40 cm is a high-risk area where we get very aerated: beyond that we don’t much care – with large personal variations depending on how twitchy you are. Debrett’s, which styles itself as the arbiter of society etiquette, has a simpler test, its distilled wisdom revealing that if you can feel the warmth of someone’s anxious breath upon your face, then you’re standing too close.

With all this neurosis it’s probably a good job no one mentioned our inner army: a ten-to-one cellular takeover (albeit that bugs are much smaller) is not so much a bit of heavy breathing as a blitzkrieg. Even so, it’s a delicately poised occupation upon which we depend for survival – and it’s one that we disturb at our peril.

References

Sambo, C.F. and Iannetti, G.D. (2013). Better Safe Than Sorry? The Safety Margin Surrounding the Body Is Increased by Anxiety. The Journal of Neuroscience 33, 14225-14230; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0706-13.2013.

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