Commusings: Know Thy-cell-f by Ara KatzDec 18, 2021
Dear Commune Community,
Anyone who regularly reads these Sunday missives or listens to my podcast is aware of my fascination with the microbiome. The study of this community of bacteria, fungi and archaea (mostly buried in our colon) nestles alongside my passion for neuroplasticity, epigenetics and praxes like breathwork, meditation and diet.
With so much of our fate pre-determined through genetics, environment, prior causes and randomness, I am seeking windows of agency. We can build new neural networks, our genes are protean in their expression and our gut bugs can up-regulate virtually every essential physiological function. When we understand mechanisms and employ modalities intelligently, we can transform the experience of what it is like to be alive. Our destiny is not fixed. This is the new gospel (re: good news) of science.
Of course, there’s a balance between that which we can control and that which we cannot. Understanding the difference may be called wisdom. And there are few wiser than the author of this week’s essay, Ara Katz. Last year, Ara and I chatted on the podcast. Her commitment to scientific rigor is without equal. Yet, she is also unafraid to wade into the spiritual metaphors that the microbiome so generously offer.
Is there really a stable, reliable “self” when we are mostly bacteria? Is our human telos simply to be meat wagons for microbes seeking anaerobic shelter?
When excavating these ideas, there are few people I find more fascinating and insightful than Ara.
In love, include me,
• • •
by Ara Katz, co-founder of Seed Health
I’m almost certain that confirmation bias (CB) is the most communicable disease of our time.
Be it COVID-19, vaccines, climate change, or post-(insert any bad ‘-ism’ you believe is in our collective past)—CB has proven to be highly transmissible, persistently mutating, and even deadly.
Our desire to seek only the information that reinforces our beliefs is now reinforced by the algorithms that mediate almost every single facet of the external world. It either fits into our existing understanding of the world or it doesn’t. There is no tolerance for nuance. And our innate 5-year-old’s instinct to question is nowhere to be found.
But what interests me most—and how I found my way to the microbiome—is the way in which these underlying belief systems can radically change the language we use, the way we live, the choices we make, how we nurture our health, and how we think. New discoveries and new information change the way we collectively see the world. Sometimes this happens gradually (fat and avocados, for example), subtly, and even subconsciously.
There is great hope for change embedded in that statement. And yet, during the course of these shifts, we as humans just can’t help appreciating, appropriating, distorting, hyping, commodifying, consecrating, and weaponizing new information—sometimes all in the character count of a single Instagram caption.
If we think the human proclivity to Other-ize, deify and demonize is only relegated to race, religion and the humans we irrationally harbor fears for, we're mistaken.
Microbes (especially bacteria) are a unique case study in othering that has occurred, to the detriment of our health, for decades.
Since the introduction of germ theory in the mid-1800s, we feared, over-sanitized and operated with a general anti-microbial-everything approach because of what we didn’t know (COVID-19 notwithstanding). Now the very microbes we have spent 100+ years trying to eradicate (and to which we are indebted for the existence of all complex life on Earth), reveal that we are so much more than we thought.
Alongside our human cells, tissues, organs, and systems, lives a community of trillions of microorganisms (38,000,000,000,000 bacteria alone, but also fungi, protozoa, and viruses) that constitute 50% of our bodies by cell count, express 99% more genes than our human cells1 and co-evolved with us over millions of years to perform critical biological functions that our human-ness depends on.
It turns out, we are them—and they are us.
We are, in fact, walking, talking ecosystems teeming with microbial life—thousands of species working in tandem to act as a whole. Like the various biomes of our planet—the rainforests, jungles, tundra, and savannahs—these different microbial ecosystems of our bodies are vital to overall health.
Without microbes, our human body can’t digest, break down complex carbohydrates, or produce critical micronutrients like B12 and folate. Zoom out from the digestive tract, and the interconnectivity is vast—your organs and systems are more interdependent than previously thought. Like a bustling metropolis, the body is home to distinct neighborhoods and communities, all connected by a network of highways and subways that enable communication across the entire system. These lines of transportation represent different axes in your body, including the gut-brain, gut-lung, gut-skin, gut-immune, gut-heart, gut-liver, and even the gut-bone axis. This is the human microbiome—a symbiotic ecosystem of trillions that exist in, on, and around us.
New research around the microbiome emerges almost daily, and what it reveals is revolutionizing our approach to medicine, hygiene, diet, the environment, and how we live. And while the $170+ million spent on the Human Microbiome Project (one of the largest NIH initiatives to date) determined that there is no one, single healthy microbiome, there was consensus that diversity and richness are generally acknowledged markers of a healthy ecosystem. And perhaps the most impactful outcome from these advances is that the microbiome (versus other fields like genomics) is producing findings that are immediately actionable and applicable to how we ‘do health.’
Think of all of the choices we make in a day—what to eat, what to drink, what to order in a restaurant, what groceries to buy, when to sleep, whether or not to get a dog, whether to take that antibiotic or wait it out. Health is a compounding of these micro and macro choices. And though holistic and integrated practices have existed for thousands of years, it wasn’t until recently that we could care for our whole selves with the information and precision the modern understanding of the microbiome now affords. From the importance of diverse, plant-rich diets, to time spent in nature, to exercise and a regular sleep schedule (yes, bacteria need “sleep” too), research has revealed how these daily choices can influence the composition and function of your microbiome and, in turn, your systemic health.
This is where I spend my life now.
• • •
To start from the beginning (not 4.5 billion years ago, but 6), I found my way to the invisible world of microbes via a miscarriage, existential crisis, subsequent pregnancy, and a lifelong passion to reconcile the dissonance between what we know and what we choose to do with what we know.
Shortly after my miscarriage, I resigned from a company I co-founded (not an easy thing to do for a female founder in tech), I got pregnant again just a few short months after and met my now co-founder, Raja Dhir—a brilliant scientific mind. Though the microbiome had been on my radar for some time (and for Raja, since the landmark mouse study that was published in 2006), it was really my pregnancy that attuned me to not only the critical role of microbes in an infant’s development and beyond, but to the long-held truths, ideas and language of health that needed to evolve.
On the one hand, we spend over $4.2 trillion globally on ‘wellness,’2 but the mortality rates attributed to non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome Type 2 Diabetes and liver disease are only increasing—almost all of which have been correlated to the human microbiome.
Our food system is broken, almost nothing we’ve done at scale is sustainable, and we learn about our bodies and make major health choices using information we consume on Instagram. I felt (and still feel) that something had to shift, starting with our framework.
For me, this is the promise of the microbiome and the potential of microbes themselves—a transformative shift in health—for us, our children and our planet.
• • •
In my son’s first year, every decision felt like a big one. But when I had trouble breastfeeding after a few months, it was especially challenging given I work in an area of science that studies not only the importance of breast milk for a child’s developing microbiome, but also the lifelong impact these early factors can have on a child's health.
Inspired by these early microbial windows of development, Raja and I set out to answer the question, “How can we set a child up for a healthy life?” And so Seed was born.
At first, to reinvent and develop an innovation that closely resembles the nutritional and microbial profile of breast milk (stay tuned :). And in the years since, our vision has expanded to nurture the whole biome with research and development that encompasses probiotic and therapeutic innovations across the gut microbiome, gut-brain axis, women’s health and the vaginal microbiome, the skin microbiome, the oral microbiome, the pediatric microbiome, and nutrition.
In the past five years, we have built a platform that has successfully launched innovations in probiotics for human health, honey bees, and even coral reefs—and now powers a pipeline of research targeting some of the most pervasive conditions for which bacteria may become or replace the primary standard of care.
We have assembled a globally recognized consortium of leading scientists—spanning the fields of microbiology, immunology, genetics, metabolomics, gastroenterology, pediatrics, molecular biology, and transcriptomics—and have built a model that translates leading science into some of the most sophisticated and rigorously tested probiotics and prebiotics globally.
But perhaps as much as our science, we are deeply committed to perspective-shifting—to the education, translation, and communication of science and the invisible world in new mediums and methods that meet people where they are. We even win awards for it, which is pretty cool. Though there’s still a lot of work to be done.
• • •
In the context of “gut mania” (yes, there’s even a South Park episode)—a phenomenon only compounded by COVID-19—accountability and integrity in areas of our research like probiotics has never been more important.
The rise of “wellness” has ushered in a wave of consumer enthusiasm and self-care, but has also propelled probiotics (an unregulated term in the U.S.) through misleading messaging, questionable products and hyperbolic claims, often with science nowhere in sight. Walk into a grocery store or type in a quick Amazon query to find probiotic pillowcases, tortilla chips, chocolate, home cleaning products, skincare, shampoos and...well, you get it.
As a result, there’s a lot of confusion about what probiotics actually are, how they work, which to take, and why they are going to play an increasingly important role in our health in the coming years.
For example, one of the most common misconceptions around probiotics is that they must colonize our gut or alter the composition of your microbiome to have an impact. This is not true.
In fact, outside of specific cases like fecal transplants, there is little evidence that probiotics “colonize.” Instead, as transient microbes, probiotics travel through your colon, interacting with your immune cells, gut cells, dietary nutrients, and existing bacteria to, directly and indirectly, deliver benefits.
Some enhance the gene expressions involved in tight junction signaling, which help protect against intestinal permeability—this means a tight gut barrier. Others trigger neurotransmitters that stimulate muscle contractions for increased motility—think easy, regular poops. Yet other bacteria produce byproducts like short-chain fatty acids, which are beneficial for metabolic and immune health.
And the work of these oft-misunderstood bacteria goes far beyond just the human microbiome. Take honey bees: Just like us, bees have a microbiome. They can get an 'upset stomach.’ They can lack microbial diversity in certain areas of their bodies. And they can succumb to external stressors that disrupt their microbial compositions.
The balance of bacteria in the honey bee microbiome is as important to their overall health as your bacteria are to yours. But environmental stressors—chemicals from agriculture (like insecticides), disease, and habitat loss—are wreaking havoc on their ability to stave off infection. And much like our human overuse of antibiotics (ahem…250 million prescriptions in the U.S. each year4), the use of neonicotinoid pesticides cause microbial disruptions that lead to weakened digestive systems, immune dysregulation, and ultimately an increased sensitivity to infectious disease: all factors contributing to unstable honey bee populations.
This is the short-sightedness of our human instinct to eradicate instead of cultivate.
The microbiome teaches us to think in systems and to deeply understand the interconnectivity not just within an organism, but among all organisms.
The interdependent ecologies and ecosystems comprising both microbes and complex life articulate a far more connected planet than 5G will ever offer. This truth offers a new language for our bodies, agency in choices for life-long health, and a sense of connection and accountability to our communities, the greater collective, and the environment.
But perhaps most exemplary of how quickly our frameworks can evolve is the fact that in a single generation (namely, us kids of the antibiotic era), our entire worldview has been upended. We now have new information to recast the fear of bacteria that many of our parents instilled in us, despite a relatively small, but powerful, <1% of pathogenic microbes5.
And while there may be more pandemics and the long-predicted climate disaster has arrived, nothing threatens our future and that of our children more than confirmation bias—the need to only pluck out of the world that which confirms what we have already decided to be true.
Zooming out, it’s worth asking:
“What are the other ideas we hold as truths that deserve a closer look?”
“What parts of our Selves, our beliefs and our lenses demand re-examination?”
“Where must we look closer?
If bacteria can do a 180 in our lifetime, what else should?
• • •
Ara Katz is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Seed Health, a microbial sciences company pioneering the application of bacteria to impact human and planetary health. Ara is also a co-founder of Seed Health’s environmental division, SeedLabs, and its first partner biotech company focused on women’s health, LUCA Biologics. Most recently, Ara authored A Kids Book About Your Microbiome to introduce the next generation of kids (and their grownups!) to their microbiome. And her work in scientific communication and microbial innovations has earned accolades such as Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas in 2019, 2020, and 2021, TIME’s Best Inventions 2018, and the Webby Awards for Best Use of Stories on Instagram.
• • •
1 Revised Estimates for the Number of Human and Bacteria Cells in the Body. PLOS Biology, 14(8), e1002533. Sender, R., Fuchs, S., & Milo, R. (2016). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1002533
2 Wellness Now a $4.2 Trillion Global Industry – with 12.8% Growth from 2015-2017. https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/press-room/press-releases/wellness-now-a-4-2-trillion-global-industry/
3 Lactobacillus spp. attenuate antibiotic-induced immune and microbiota dysregulation in honey bees. Brendan A. Daisley, Andrew P. Pitek, John A. Chmiel, Shaeley Gibbons, Anna M. Chernyshova, Kait F. Al, Kyrillos M. Faragalla, Jeremy P. Burton, Graham J. Thompson & Gregor Reid. Commun Biol 3, 534 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-020-01259-8
4 Outpatient Antibiotic Prescriptions - United States, 2019 | Antibiotic Use. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 July 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/data/report-2019.html.
5 Microbiology by numbers. Nat Rev Microbiol 9, 628 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrmicro2644
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