Skip to main content

paranoid theory of the week :: are we being controlled by bacteria?

you cannot resist- we are already inside you!
isn't that a lovely thought for our first paranoid theory of 2016? what if we are not individuals with thoughts and feelings and our own distinct characteristics? what if everything we think of as our conscious behaviour is in fact driven by billions of bacteria living in us at all times, essentially meaning that everything we conceive of as us is really them and there is no us at all?

do you dare question your very existence? do your micro-controllers want you to look through the words below?

the theory ::
human behaviour is chiefly guided by the needs of the billions of microscopic bacteria that live in and on our bodies.

the origin :: 
very tricky to say with any exactitude, but conjecture around it is inextricably linked with the human microbiome project, which was the first large-scale effort to map and categorize the flora living on all human bodies. so we'll cite that as the root of all subsequent theories.

the believers ::
a number of people involved in or interested in the microbiome project from various health sciences fields, although by no means all of them.

the bad guys ::
there are no good guys. there are no bad guys. in fact, if the theory is true "good", "bad" and "guys" are all meaningless terms. there is nothing but bacteria terraforming human cells to perpetuate the life of its kind.

the evidence ::
first off, we must confront an uncomfortable reality: we are more them than we are us. of the total cells that make up the thing that stares back at us in the mirror, human cells represent only about 10%. the rest of that meatbag we call a body is made up of lots of microscopic bacteria, who are just trying to make it work for their people in their corner of the you-niverse. [what human cells lack in number, however, they more than make up for in size/ weight; for instance, the 100 trillion bacteria that live in the average human gut amounts to only a pound or two. so if it's any consolation, by mass, you're definitely human.]

except that the inoculation will only increase our strength
there are certainly examples of microscopic organisms that can control behaviour, but studies have tended to focus on invasive varieties. the best known today is probably toxoplasma gondii, or the "crazy cat lady" parasite. this clever protozoan can live in any warm-blooded animal, but it can only reproduce inside members of the felidae family. here kitty kitty. as you've likely heard, t. gondii has developed a mechanism to make perpetuation of the species more likely: it gets into the brains of the warm-blooded animals where it lives and makes a few tweaks. on the surface, these are pretty harmless, but for species like mice, rats, and birds, they're deadly. that's because the teeny, tiny cysts that t. gondii create have a tendency to turn off the panic reflex these animals have when they come in contact with signs of feline predators. indeed, rats infected with toxoplasmosis not only don't panic when they smell traces of cat urine, they seem to be curious about it. if you're a whole rat, that's suicide. but if your t. gondii living in a rat, it's a crucial change that allows you to get to the only environment where your people can survive. so, yes, this scenario likely ends with the rat-host dying a violent death, but if you're t. gondii, you're all going to die anyway unless you can find a cat.

but toxoplasma gondii is something that's not normally present in humans. there are millions of varieties of bacteria that are normally present in humans and all of them want to create the most hospitable environment for themselves too. think of your ancestors, many thousands of years ago, as they tried to get the hang of farming. they learned that they needed certain things to happen in their environment in order for crops to succeed, primarily irrigation. if there wasn't enough water coming into the land naturally to feed crops, then the humans had to intervene and make a change that brought more water into the land. that's what bacteria do, except that their needs aren't generally as simple as water and the land that they're managing is you.

the gut is the greatest source of bacteria, both in terms of overall number and variety. and not all of those bacteria agree on what constitutes ideal living conditions, not by a long shot. some like to have a more acidic environment. others like things more alkaline. and most of the time, the overall environment is kept balanced enough that everyone can live together, but sometimes, certain species get a taste for expansion and that's when things get weird. when the balanced environment shifts, some bacteria are able to greatly expand their territory, essentially committing bacterial genocide by displacing their neighbours who are less suited to changes in the environment.

their victory only makes them realise the possibilities for even greater conquests, which prompts them to do things that make expansion easier, i.e., things that make their environment [you] more hospitable. what scientists have discovered is that bacteria can do things like signal the vagus nerve to deliver more stuff that will make the environment hospitable, like say, keeping the scid levels higher than normal. the vagus nerve deals with these signals by shooting them into your brain, where you experience them as cravings for things like pasta and pickles, which increase acidity in the gut.

that's all well and good for the bacteria that thrive in acidity, but scientists studying the human microbiome have noted that it can cause long-term environmental damage. people with highly acidic guts are prone to developing all sorts of different conditions, which, unlike acute diseases, don't simply start, progress and pass, but endure, causing ongoing inflammation and deterioration. nor are those limited to the gut. some of the most interesting correlations between human health and acid-base homeostasis [the fancy term for the correct ph balance in the body] have to do with what can happen inside the brain. that's something we've talked about this more than once on more like space.

your size is no match for our superior numbers
the drawback here is that this science is still in its infancy. the human microbiome project was a five-year project that only started in 2008. many of the studies that have produced interesting results have been small. that doesn't make them inaccurate, but it does make them more prone to inaccuracy than larger studies. moving too fast with new technologies can cause more problems than it solves, after all; humanity felt it had made a huge advance when it figured out how to treat sharp force wounds by sewing them up, but that knowledge only became truly helpful when humanity figured out the importance of cleaning the wounds first.

the likelihood :: 7/10
even though the science is young, and it's yet to be determined the extent to which our microbiome makes our decisions, what's come out thus far is pretty damn compelling. bacteria, much like humans, termites, and many other lifeforms, exhibit a type of inverse natural selection, modifying their environment to suit their needs as well as adapting to better survive in it. and we're what's being modified.

there are trillions of them and they are able to send signals for what they need by using our strings of cellular material, signals which we receive and act on. we think we're in control, but every time we want another chocolate, chances are that's a bacterial battalion desperately looking to frack more life-sustaining nutrients out of our lower intestine.

but just because it's been some time since we got all paranoid around these parts, how's this for a potential twist: in two or three hundred years, what are the odds we find out that the bacteria are actually controlled by molecules that cling to their surfaces? how far does this thing go, exactly?

Comments

as long as you're here, why not read more?

dj kali & mr. dna @ casa del popolo post-punk night

last night was a blast! a big thank you to dj tyg for letting us guest star on her monthly night, because we had a great time. my set was a little more reminiscent of the sets that i used to do at katacombes [i.e., less prone to strange meanderings than what you normally hear at the caustic lounge]. i actually invited someone to the night with the promise "don't worry, it'll be normal". which also gives you an idea of what to expect at the caustic lounge. behold my marketing genius.

mr. dna started off putting the "punk" into the night [which i think technically means i was responsible for the post, which doesn't sound quite so exciting]. i'd say that he definitely had the edge in the bouncy energy department.

many thanks to those who stopped in throughout the night to share in the tunes, the booze and the remarkably tasty nachos and a special thank you to the ska boss who stuck it out until the end of the night and gave our weary bones a ride home…

the war is over

i assumed that the live coverage of last weekend's "march for our lives" would be hard to watch, and in some ways, it was. however, i did not expect that it would feel so joyful and empowering as well. 
the idea that "joyful" can be used in the description of a rally around the subject of violence and death seems bizarre, and certainly many of the speeches were anything but. however, it was difficult not to watch things unfold on saturday and not have the feeling that there is a spirit of positive change. young people, younger than the much-discussed millennial demographic, are taking it to the powers that be and those powers be shakin' in their shoes.

it's hardly surprising that cheeto benito ran off to golf for the weekend rather than stay and face the music of arianna grande and common; after all, he spends every weekend on a taxpayer-funded golf holiday. nor is it surprising that congress's most vocal critics of gun reform apparently spent the …

friday favourites 20.07.12

i was almost going to skip it this week. not out of any disinterest, but i always feel weird posting something flip and cheeky on days when the news is choked with stories of some location filled with people going about their lives suddenly getting shot up by a lone maniac with some sort of personal gripe or agenda.

awful things happen every single day. people who lead otherwise normal lives are suddenly transformed through violence every single day. by the harsh standards of the world, what happened last night in aurora, colorado isn't even close to the worst. i'm sure families in syria would consider a day where ten people died to be better than average. but there is something about these completely random mass shootings in otherwise fairly peaceful places that haunts us all here in the western world. it happened today with aurora. it happened a year ago sunday in norway. it happened in another colorado town, now synonymous with the terror of such a massacre in 1999.

what h…