Friday, March 30, 2012

Are People Just Clusters of Germs?

You know, when I was in high school science class during our unit on cells, I noticed that there's no significant structural difference between a generic human cell and the bacteria we were looking at under the microscope (collected from the slack water in a ditch behind the school). I posited that this would mean people are really nothing more than a large community of bacteria. "No," my teacher said, "a bacteria is a complete being in and of itself. A human is much more complicated."

This explanation never fully satisfied me. I get that we're more complicated than swamp water bacteria. But if we're made up of cells, doesn't it stand to reason that at some point clusters of single-celled organisms got together to synergistically carry out collective goals to create this organization? I don't mean that a group of cells collected in pond water and discovered that they could interact in such a way as to suddenly become human. I mean that over time, as groups of cells came together, more and more complex "societies" developed to produce this strangely complex creature we are. Or my cat is. Or the tree in the back yard is.

It's the selfish gene, taken up a level to the collective germ.

This TEDTalk by Bonnie Bassler on how bacteria communicate is a much more satisfying answer--not simply because it agrees with my juvenile hypothesis, but because it actually explores the case for multicellular organization down to the molecular level. Take a look:


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