One day in June 2015, my wife Jeanette and I found ourselves sitting in an outdoor bar in downtown Austin, Texas, sharing a table with two very nice people named Tom and Kathleen. Tom is a triathlete (among other things) and his wife Kathleen is a Pilates instructor. Austin on the other hand, is well known for the large number of free-tailed bats which spend part of each year living under the Congress Avenue bridge downtown, and having a lot of babies, most of them bats.
For the record, bats are not “flying mice.” They’re actually part of the Chiroptera order which is related to primates including lemurs, monkeys, apes and humans. Flying monkeys might be closer to the mark. I might have more to say about these bats later, but right now I want to point out that the four of us humans yakked for about two hours that night, covering a wide range of topics. A good bit of the conversation revolved around the burgeoning field of Microbiomes.
According to Wikipedia, a Microbiome is the collective genome or assemblage of DNA of the microorganisms that reside in an environmental niche, although most folks don’t distinguish between the DNA, and the actual critters (microbiota) that live in the niche. A lot of researchers these days are particularly interested in the various human microbiomes, and are busy peering intently into places like your nostrils, ear canals, mouth and other nooks and crannies, to see what lives there.
One of the nooks and crannies receiving major airtime is the large intestine or colon, in particular the distal colon or the end closest to your Nethermost Bodily Aperture (NBA). The distal colon happens to be home to a thriving community of bacteria, fungi, bacteriophages (viruses which prey on bacteria) and worms, not to mention tiny Radiofrequency Identification or RFID chips implanted in all of us by agents of The Department of Environmental Niches. It is estimated that there are at least 100-trillion bacterial cells down there amongst the RFID chips.
To put this into the proper perspective, you need to know that the average adult only has about 10- trillion bodily or somatic cells. That brings up the question of exactly who is the host and who is the colonizer. So while you’re pondering THAT, this is as good a place as any to also think briefly about Topology.
Topology is the branch of Mathematics concerned with “the study of geometric properties and spatial relations unaffected by the continuous change of shape or size of figures” and it comes in handy when you need to answer riddles like “What do a doughnut and a coffee cup have in common?” Well, if you have a doughnut made of Play DohTM and you take a graduate-level course in Topology, you eventually can figure out that you can squish and deform the doughnut into a coffee cup, as long as you don’t mess around too much with the hole. (A cardinal rule of Topology!) Or you could just ask any three-year-old and they would set you straight after giggling a bit and looking at you like you suddenly grew two more heads.
This is all relevant, since a human being is essentially a long tunnel (with a few side branches) extending from the mouth to the NBA, surrounded by 10-trillion somatic cells. So all of us, including agents of The Department of Environmental Niches, are basically topologically equivalent to a 10-trillion-cell doughnut covered by a layer of icing made up of 100-trillion bacterial cells. This is a highly disturbing thought and actually I don’t even know why I brought it up.
Turns out that this thriving 100-trillion-cell colony of organisms seems to be involved in pretty much every aspect of our existence including, but not limited to: energy harvesting, clearance of toxins, immune function, mood, political preference, favorite animal and so on, although the details of how this happens are still being sorted out.
The thing a rational person is going to ask themselves at this point is: what happens if you take a sample of bacteria from the colon of one person and transplant it into the colon of another person? That is a great question, and you wouldn’t be the first person to ask it. Turns out that these fecal transplants, as they are called, have been carried out to cure intractable diarrhea in people suffering from an overgrowth of a rogue bacterium known as Clostridium difficile.
An even more interesting question you could ask yourself is: what happens if you take some bacteria from the distal colon of a skinny person and transplant them into the distal colon of a not-so-skinny person? This has already been done in mice and the not-so-skinny mice lost weight without doing anything different such as eating Paleo or taking up kickboxing.
I don’t recommend that you try this at home just yet, although you probably could, using just a few common household implements such as a blender and a turkey baster. Who knows where all this is headed? Maybe people will start having fecal-transplant parties, sort of like Tupperware parties, or those parties from the 1950’s all the Moms brought their kids to so they (the kids) could get chickenpox at the same time.
If you decide to go ahead with this, you should probably try to find a donor who is a triathlete and looks like he is 30 even though he is actually 83, or maybe someone who is a Pilates instructor who can eat anything she wants for her entire life without gaining a microgram, thereby earning the undying hatred of most of the women on this planet, and maybe even women from other planets.
But if you want to restrict your search for a donor to this planet, Austin might be a great place to start. Just watch out for the flying monkeys.