Zoo inside you

This book lights a rare sort of fire. Prepare for ideas that catch and flame and race.  You will focus and refocus on the surprises that Ed Yong keeps bringing on page after page of “I contain multitudes.” He’s playing with your sense of scale and identity.

You’ve heard of the microbiome, the one in your gut is most often discussed in the grocery aisles where well-meaning people claim to be buying special yogurt to help their digestion.  The human gut microbiome is millions of microscopic creatures that live in a symbiosis with us – their hosts – and digest our food and communicate with our brain. But Yong is taking you on a bigger journey, a better setting of context, a longer long view.

“All the visible organisms that we’re familiar with, everything that springs to mind when we think of “nature,” are latecomers to life’s story. They are part of the coda. For most of the tale, microbes were the only living things on Earth.” [pg.7]

Gently, and with exquisite detail, Yong shows readers the characters and colonies and “social” lives of microbes inside a pangolin, a squid, a cicada, a rat and a mosquito. Knowing that his readers may hang by their fingernails, he offers metaphor and analogy to give us hand holds  on a journey more like Alice’s in Wonderland than a simple march from step to step.

“Think of it this way: an animal’s genes are like set designers in a theater – they create the stage upon which specific microbes can perform. Our environment – friends and footsteps, dirt and diet – then affects the actors that take the stage. And random chance lords over the whole production, which is why even genetically identical mice that live in the same lab end up with slightly different microbiomes.”

Yong wisely takes time, in the chapter “The Long Waltz” to take us inside the very identity and labeling arguments between scientists. How do we frame and label new understanding.  Should we say “symbiosis” or should we accept new frames like “holobiont?” New ways of seeing require new words.  This book makes you question the very definition of “me” or “mine.” Are you driving or being driven?

One key power that microbes have is exchanging genes with one another, an ability known as horizontal gene transfer.  In Yong’s imagination, we see it as a giant boozy party scene. 

“They can exchange DNA as easily as we might exchange phone numbers, money or ideas. Sometimes, they sidle up to one another, create a physical link, and shuttle bits of DNA across: their equivalent of sex. They can also scrounge up discarded bits of DNA in their environment, left by their dead and decaying neighbors.” [pg 191]

Our journey includes some potential fixes that researchers propose. One leverages a bacterium to vanquish mosquito-borne diseases. Another engineers a microbe that could peer into our bodies and repair problems.  Yong wisely includes many caveats with those rosy future pictures. But mostly he leaves us gaping, awestruck, at a new way of seeing ourselves in a new mirror.

“Big Chicken” book raises big problems

Factory farming, whether raising chicken or cattle or even fish, turns out to have unintended consequences.
Author Maryn McKenna will talk about these consequences and her book, “Big Chicken,” at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 23 at the ImpactHub in Seattle. She’s likely to touch on the fish farm controversies of the Northwest, because cramming salmon into pens is related to cramming chickens into pens. The cramming itself leads to problems.
She plumbs the history of chicken farming in her book, but in service to a much bigger story. She traces the growing scientific understanding that antibiotic use in farming led to antibiotic resistance in the dangerous bacteria that now haunt hospitals and nursing homes, threatening human lives. Feeding the drugs to chickens helped carry those “resistant” bacteria, the ones who survived the antibiotics, to become widespread in our communities.
She asks readers to widen their lens even more, and see this development as part of what is called “One Health.” One Health integrates veterinary and medical research to try to recognize the whole community is connected to the health of all parts. Seattle has a place dedicated to this paradigm, the Center for One Health Research at the University of Washington.
Chicken farmers began giving antibiotics to their fowl in the late 1940s, but not because of sick chickens, rather because of the accidental discovery that antibiotics helped fatten the birds. What McKenna vividly illustrates is how consumer desires and marketing led to cramming birds into smaller and smaller living spaces. Smaller living spaces required different practices for raising the birds in a shorter time to a larger size. This may sound familiar to those who are worried about fish getting crammed into pens.
“Whenever you take a creature that is evolved to range free and try to raise them in a smaller and smaller space, it requires artificial means to make that happen,” McKenna said in a phone interview.
Today, the World Health Organization has declared this sort of “resistance” as one of the biggest threats to global health. The overuse of antibiotics speeds up the process of resistance.. If this threat continues, it could create a nightmarish return to people dying of what were once ordinary infections. One big example of this is known as MRSA, for methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
Seattle played a role in the early understanding of how this threat might hurt people.
It was a Seattle scientist, Reimert Ravenholt, who discovered an outbreak of a skin infection among workers at a chicken slaughterhouse in the 1950s. Ravenholt later published in 1961 the first description of antibiotic resistance as a result of factory use. Here is part of how the book explains his discovery:
“Ravenholt could not prove in a lab that the antibiotic doses, the chicken’s lesions, the antibiotic soaks, and the workers’ health problems were linked. But he was confident that what happened was this: Drugs in the feed had affected bacteria in the birds, habituating them to antibiotics, and the low dose of the same antibiotics in the chilling bath had eliminated all the bacteria except for those that had become resistant. Those had survived to infect the workers who were plunging their arms and hands in the contaminated water.”
In the Northwest, we have fish crowded into pens, and there are some parallels where growing protein of any kind – fish, meat or chicken – may threaten human health in some way. Chickens are not routinely given antibiotics for growth anymore in the U.S. But beef and pork still get these doses. It is estimated that 70 percent of all the antibiotics on earth may be given to animals, not people.
Salmon farms in the U.S., like the controversial ones that collapsed and released Atlantic salmon into the Puget Sound ecosystem in August, don’t routinely use antibiotics as growth promoters. But a study in 2014 showed that farmed-salmon sold in US markets did have traces of antibiotics. Salmon raised in net pens are also crowded, just like land-based protein sources
European countries have regulated antibiotic use much more than the United States. In the U.S., it was consumer demand that prompted Perdue Farms, Inc, the fourth largest producer, to announce in 2014 that they would not use growth-promoting antibiotics. McKenna believes that public awareness about protein production, including fish, is the path forward to reducing the threat of antibiotic resistance and other unintended consequences.
She ends her book with a visit to a family farm, where every aspect of raising chickens is in stark contrast to a factory. She calls those intentional measures the hallmarks that should change the way the world raises protein.

Most Influential: Rick Horwitz of Allen Cell Institute

He left comfortable tenure at the University of Virginia about two years ago to lead the brand-new nonprofit Allen Institute for Cell Science here in Seattle—and he’s wasted no time. In April, Rick Horwitz, Ph.D., and his team opened the Allen Cell Explorer, a free scientific resource, accessible to anyone in the world, that has the potential to help speed up insights about drugs and diseases.

The Cell Explorer allows viewers to “see” inside microscopic photos of once-living cells. Forget parts of the cell you labeled in seventh-grade biology: mitochondria, nucleus, vacuole. “We don’t know where any of that is,” Horwitz explains. The inside of a cell is dynamic, moving and churning to conduct daily chores. The Explorer gives viewers ways to see 3-D images that are built using living cells, which are photographed in ways that expose specific structures at work. Read whole story here: http://www.seattlemag.com/news-and-features/most-influential-seattleites-2017-rick-horwitz