You are a colonizer – and so am I

Look around you. What did you touch before opening this blogpost? What are you touching at this very moment? Perhaps you are sitting on a chair, leaning up against a wall, touching your phone or typing on the keyboard in front of your computer. Microbes on your body, invisible to the naked eye, seed the things, the spaces and the people around you. Everything you touch; you colonize your environment with the microbes inhabiting the skin on your fingertips. Even things you do not reach out and touch with your body parts. You are a colonizer. Most likely without giving it a second thought. 

Since the proliferation of Coronavirus, you might be used to such questions about what you touched. Pondering what we touched and did not touch, estimating whether we need to use hand sanitizer again, and then after a split second smelling the alcoholic vapors and feeling the cool, wet liquid on our hands. You might even be so used to words such as Corona, COVID-19, pandemic and quarantine that you consider to stop reading this post. I probably would. But this is not another blog post about Corona and despite (or perhaps especially in case of) “Corona fatigue,” I hope the fascinating microbial colonization of our bodies is a welcoming image.

Microbial fingerprints

Last year, I read an article called Humans differ in their personal microbial cloud written by James F. Meadow and colleagues in 2015. The heading really piqued my interest. I had never heard of such a cloud before. At first, it reminded me of spiritual auras, surrounding our bodies, but the article turned out to be about laboratory experiments on airborne particle emission. One at a time, the researchers placed their participants in experimental climate chambers that they sanitized beforehand. They then measured the particles emitted from the participants onto the surfaces of the climate chamber. Their measurements showed that the participants “shed a detectable bacterial cloud,” seeding the environment of the chamber, even though the participants sat stationary on a chair. Their analyses could also distinguish the bacterial clouds from each participant.

In other words: We disperse different personal clouds of bacteria in our environments. We leave a bacterial fingerprint behind us wherever we go (or whenever we sit down and drink a cup of coffee). We interact with the bacterial fingerprints of others, just like they interact with ours. Our microbial clouds entangle without us noticing. Is it like an extended invisible self?

You are being colonized

A few weeks before the national lockdown of Danish society in March 2020, I gave a public tour at Medical Museion. My tour focused on our exhibition Mind the Gut, giving glimpses into how doctors, researchers, patients and artists throughout time have attempted to understand the connection between the mind and gut. Click here to read more about the exhibition.

Four high-school students had shown up for the tour. We entered the second room of the exhibition, themed Origins. The exhibits in this room show how human-microbial interactions are fundamental to our life – from the development of our gut and mouth as the first structures during early fetal development to the diversity of gut bacteria and how it changes throughout life. We paused at the exhibit called You are not alone. It consists of an installation called Micro-Families produced for Mind the Gut with Professor and bioartist François-Joseph Lapointe. Lapointe also carried out microbiome sequencing and modelling for the installation collaborating with Virginie Lemieux-Labonté, Daniel Ortega, and Santiago Ortiz.

The description of the exhibit shows a family portrait of a baby, child, mother and grandmother. On the wall, four rotating spheres are projected. They contain various amounts of nodes all connecting in a complex overlapping network of lines. Each sphere represents the diversity of gut bacteria for each of the persons in the family portrait. The baby’s sphere and the grandmother’s sphere contain the fewest nodes and the child’s and the mother’s contain the most.

The exhibit tells a story about how humans are being colonized by bacteria throughout life. Right after we are born, bacteria colonize us. They inhabit our gut, and by doing so they influence our digestion, emotion and immune system among others. Their numbers and diversity increase as time goes on before their diversity decreases as we age. For sure, we are not alone. A family portrait displays family members not visible to the camera lens that captured the image.

View of the exhibition space Origins in Mind the Gut. Photo: Christoffer Regild
View of the exhibition space Origins in Mind the Gut. Photo: Christoffer Regild
Microbial dialectics – and the implications of communicating about it

I tell the high-school students about the exhibit. They seem interested and ask a few questions. I continue the story about not being alone by describing the microbial clouds that we as humans disperse in our environments. To me, it is a fascinating story about the dialectics of microbial exchange: Microorganisms colonize us through our interactions with other people, furniture, dust and so on, just like we colonize them in return.

In the middle of telling this story, I start wondering about the implications the attention to our microbial bodies might have, considering the spread of Coronavirus. Are the high school students going to think more about this after their visit at the museum, and what kind of thoughts might the microbial story give rise to? Could it potentially provoke anxiety about our bodies and the way we interact and socialize with each other?

I round off the story about our microbial bodies with a few reassuring sentences. However, the question still lurks in my mind: How can we talk about microbial colonization during a pandemic?

The narrative about microbes has changed dramatically throughout time. In the 20th century, microbes were thought of as primarily harmful and disease causing, but in the 21st century, the war against germs turned into an appreciation of microbes that highlight their importance for our life. Being sterile is unhealthy. Of course, it is still important to maintain good hygiene. Especially in times of a pandemic. My point here is not to argue against handwash, sanitizers or face masks. However, even though some bacteria and viruses are harmful, we cannot live without them.

Our story as colonizer and colonized is at the same time strange and fascinating, just like the implications of telling it are both tangible and abstract to imagine. Perhaps it is exactly the oscillation between the estranged and immediate relatable nuances of the story that might create momentum for us to imagine ourselves and bodies anew – as complex beings living with microbes for better or for worse. Or perhaps it is just a brief thought soon to be forgotten after reading this post while our microbial colonizations go on as they always have.

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