Microbes on the Mind

Inhabiting the concept of holobiont: thinking through visual imagery

On June 23th 2021, I (Joana Formosinho) had the pleasure of giving a talk at Aarhus University’s Center for Environmental Humanities. The talk was based on my research of how the rise to prominence of microbes within biology and biomedicine, as agents in human health, as co-evolving partners in the making of bodies, is disrupting established notions of biological individuality.

I began the talk by arguing that the holobiont is a concept of perceptual value for society, beyond controversies of its usage within scientific discourse. It invites us to encounter anew the human body in its constitutive relations. The holobiont is often defined as the functional unit comprised of a host macro-organism plus micro-organisms living on or inside the host (the microbiota). Its multi-genomic composition is highly dynamic: it varies from individual to individual, and changes throughout the lifespan of an individual according to factors such as age, food ingestion, social relations and physical surroundings. As a term, the holobiont invites re-drawing of the boundaries of biological self, and re-imagining of the relational pathways between human and non-human; body and environment. 

I then reviewed visual imagery associated with the holobiont within scientific and popular science discourse and identified recurring patterns. I hypothesized that these patterns may indicate perceptual challenges: challenges of rendering knowledge habitable by the imagination. There has been attention lately on the role of cross-disciplinary collaboration in addressing translational challenges posed by the complexity sciences. Notably, Latour and Lenton’s work on the critical zones, which emphasizes that the climate crisis is a crisis of the imagination, of the capacity to inhabit scientific knowledge. Latour and Weibel (2020) argue that enlightenment cosmology of the Earth as a body made up of separate constituent parts that can de ‘added up’ to a coherent whole are no longer adequate—a “new metric” is needed. I closed the talk by arguing that this ‘cosmological problem’ extends to the human body and can be examined through microbiome research and the concept of holobiont. Attention to imagery arising within the field of discourse can help us understand some of the challenges inherent in re-conceptualizing the human in and through its constitutive relations with microbes—with implications for health and sustainability.

A sincere thank you to CEH for inviting me to speak—the lively Q&A was a pleasure, and full of generative thoughts to help me take this work further.  


Latour, Bruno and Weibel, Peter, eds. Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth. Cambridge, MA/ London, England: ZKM & MIT Press, 2020.