On science blogs this week: Quorum

GUT FEELINGS. My favorite scientific fact is this one: 9 out of 10 of your body cells are not you at all. They belong to microorganisms. Mostly bacteria, but also the others, archaea, fungi, even algae. (I don't believe viruses are counted here, which finesses the unsettled question of whether viruses are organisms.) Since the 9-in-10 figure is my favorite datum, I may have mentioned it before. But it cannot be repeated too often. The implications are huge and getting huger.

Which brings us to yogurt, in the form of the PNAS paper published earlier this month showing that Lactobacillus, a bacterial group essential to yogurt, can change the behavior of mice. It seems to make them less anxious.

The thing of it is that the blogger Scicurious was impressed by this paper, and so I was impressed too. I have often cited Scicurious's careful criticisms of hot papers, so when she fancies one, the rest of us should take note.

See the Scicurious post for a description of what the researchers found and how they found it and the many things that remain to be found. But the short version is that the research suggests this scenario: Gut bacteria influence behavior by changing vagus nerve signalling governing brain receptors for the neurotransmitter GABA. (The vagus is the 10th cranial nerve. It carries messages back and forth between the gut and the brain.)

Ed Yong also described the paper at Not Exactly Rocket Science. Yong notes that the

study is the latest in an accumulating body of evidence showing that gut bacteria are little backseat drivers for their hosts.

Jonah Lehrer expatiated on the same paper at his blog The Frontal Cortex. (Well, strictly speaking what he did was reprint a piece he had done for The Wall Street Journal, a fine example of writerly adaptive reuse.)

Lehrer's focus was what the paper said about the mind-body problem, our persistent sense that our minds are floating around out there, unconnected with our physical beings. There's an issue here for science writers made clear to me some years ago when I was discussing future plans with the editor who had done my book on the brain. She came to me with what she thought was a wonderful idea: now, she said, I could do a book on the mind. I explained that I had already done that book because the mind is just one of the things the brain does. She was silent, and I'm pretty sure completely unconvinced. I was chagrined too, to realize that my book had not made that point explicit. Lehrer's conclusion:

This research shows that the immateriality of mind is a deep illusion. Although we feel like a disembodied soul, many feelings and choices are actually shaped by the microbes in our gut and the palpitations of our heart.

This research (and other recent papers) is making it quite clear that in each of our bodies, the 90% of microbial cells are not just squatting there next to the paltry 10% that is you or me. They are interacting madly with each other, and with us, with consequences that are nearly all unknown. This is a universe that is more a mystery than all our other science frontiers, like the bottom of the ocean or the moons of Jupiter or those hundreds of exoplanets astronomers are so mad for. Better get cracking, because this universe of invisible things, we have begun to learn, governs our lives.

MORE GUT FEELINGS. I came to this gutsy topic by way of a short item in The Scientist (by Jeff Akst), about a gut microbe genome project that is trying to persuade citizens to get their gut microorganisms sequenced for ~$2100 at their own expense. My.microbes is organized from the European Molecular Biology Lab in Heidelberg and at at this writing says it has collected 147 samples.

The project doesn't seem to be tied to the Human Microbiome Project at the National Institutes of Health, but struck me as blogworthy. But not, apparently, other bloggers, although there have been pieces at Nature News (by Nicola Jones) and New Scientist (by Jamie Condliffe). The latter is headed, ambiguously, "Social network lets people with same gut flora hook up." Which implies social networking of a kind that will lead folks to exchange microbial communities, and I am guessing that's not what EMBL has in mind.

The only blogging exception I found is a blog new to me, called Geekosystem, where a brief, bylined James Plafke, is drawn from New Scientist. I mention it mostly because of the hed: "My Microbes, a Social Network for Intestinal Bacteria." If there are organisms that are quintessentially their own social network, it is bacteria. They have turned the spooky form of cell-cell communication called quorum sensing into something like high art — and, possibly, the beginnings of multicellular life.

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LIFE. The Encyclopedia of Life — the name says it all — has been around for four years but was, let's be honest here, frustrating to consult and to use.

If you're one of those who loves the Big Idea of gathering together all that is known about all 1.9 million of Earth's species (so far) but who hasn't visited recently because of those frustrations, rejoice. Encyclopedia of Life has been redesigned from scratch; about the only interface feature the site has retained is the ambitious name.

And if you had no idea such an aspirational project existed, also rejoice. Because it does.

To answer your first question, yes, it's still free. There remains a long way to go to get to 1.9 million, but according to the official press release, EOL is heading toward halfway there, with data on nearly 700,000 species. EarthSky has a writeup on what to expect, with nice pix. Get many more details in the PDF release from a major EOL funder, the MacArthur Foundation, which explains:

The Encyclopedia of Life is compiled from existing databases and from contributions by experts and non-experts throughout the world. It aims to build one "infinitely expandable" page for each species, including video, sound, images, graphics, as well as text.

And also:

The new interface makes it easy for users to find organisms of interest; to create personal collections of photos and information; to find or upload pictures, videos and sounds; and to share comments, questions and expertise with users worldwide who share similar interests.

And also, breathtakingly:

EOL.org seeks to become a microscope in reverse, or “macroscope,” helping users discern large-scale patterns. By aggregating for analysis information on Earth’s estimated 1.9 million known species, scientists say EOL could, for example, help map vectors of human disease, reveal mysteries behind longevity, suggest substitute plant pollinators for a swelling list of places where honeybees no longer provide that service, and foster strategies to slow the spread of invasive species.

Some of the goodies: All content available for reuse under Creative Commons and other Open Access licenses! 600,000 still images and videos! Mobile and desktop apps! Arabic and Spanish versions! Chas. Darwin's library, complete with the Great Man's notes!

And here's EOL's own overview of what it is and what you can do with it. Which starts off on the right foot (with me, anyway) by quoting that matchless advice from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: DON'T PANIC.

September 23, 2011

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