Web Roundups

Web Roundup: The Gut Microbiome and our Bacterial Selves

Attempts at understanding the true nature our innermost selves has long been a human preoccupation. Are our inner worlds populated with repressed memories and persistent neuroses? Or perhaps our genes direct and define us even as they hide in the interior spaces of our interior spaces? Well, now there is a new contender in the hidden constitution of human selfhood: the gut microbiome. And these microbes even like chocolate!

Our innermost microbial identities are gaining a lot of attention on the world-wide-web (technically an antiseptic space, but nevertheless susceptible to “viral” transmissions – why not bacterial as well?). Now, we discover that our bodies are mostly microbes, with a ratio of about 90% microbial cells to a mere 10% of cells that are human. The accompanying picture of some actual gut microbes at first looks like a haphazardly decorated cupcake surface, swirled in leftover rainbow sprinkles and maybe some various nut dregs and old crumbs (see more of it here).

A great deal of interest was sparked by Michael Pollan’s New York Times article last year, “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs.” Pollan re-defines himself as a “superorganism,” a human body that is a community or an ecosystem for microbes. This view could lead us to a new means of understanding health and illness, or, as Anne Buchanan suggests, it could just be the latest form of “science marketing.”

The microbiome is cropping up in a variety of other ways: as a promising arena of cross-cultural comparison, as a means to track historical human migrations, or as a means of better understanding the inner worlds of our ancient ancestors. The NIH is already investing in a “Human Microbiome Project,” including support for research on the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications.

If I had an extra $99, perhaps I would also send a sample of my personal bacterial ecosystem to the “American Gut Project,” where it would be analyzed and the results sent to me; the data is also aggregated into the “Earth Microbiome Project.” Of course, there are other means of exploring alterntive micro-personhoods, including the analysis of plain old DNA. After reading this article on commerical DNA testing meant to identify susceptibility to various diseases, I have my doubts, but there can still be an appeal in the discovery of possible Neanderthal-inflected selves. One fifth of Neanderthals’ genetic code lives on in modern humans, and some of us are up to 3% Neanderthal, depending on geographic ancestry! (There’s an at-home DNA test for this too! Only $199.95) So, if the 3% Neanderthal self is added to the 90% bacterial self, that leaves only 7% for our human selves.

Further reading:

  • The fecal transplant is a therapy that can be used as a treatment for individuals with intestinal illnesses. If by now you are feeling that your gut microbiome/bacterial selfhood is inadequate, and you are also very brave, an at-home fecal transplant may be the solution! (Or maybe not.)
  • Forget the refrigerator mother – the new way to blame the mother is for her tendency to transmit her stressed-out vaginal bacteria to the fetus!
  • If you want to explore your (possible) Neanderthal ancestry, there are many options available today: may as well start here.


By Sara M Bergstresser

Sara M Bergstresser is interested in the intersection of health and society, including global bioethics, mental health policy and stigma, religion and health, and social inequalities.

5 replies on “Web Roundup: The Gut Microbiome and our Bacterial Selves”

Anthropology hasn’t exactly been sitting on the sidelines of this of microbial exposé. Amber Benezra et. al. charted out the collaborative premise and promise of an “anthropology of microbes” two years ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences… Great stuff!

Fantastic read as I’ve been casually reflecting on the idea of selfhood and self-conception with respect to the multi-organism conglomeration that constitutes a human being for a while now. I appreciate the materials you’ve made available.

I’m an undergraduate medical anthropology student currently applying to graduate programs. I’ve come across your name in this process as my research interests—mental health, global public health, psychological anthropology, and embodiment—seem to align with the work you have done. In light of this, and the fact that I am applying to a few programs you have affiliations with (Brown, BU), I would love the opportunity to ask your advice about moving forward in this field. If you come across the time, please email me.

Thanks for the article. I look forward to keeping tabs on your contributions to the Somatosphere.

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