You Are a Coral Reef with Ara KatzJun 12, 2020
Like a reef or rainforest, what we call a human is actually a multispecies superorganism — technically a "holobiont." We evolved to exist with our microbes and the microbiomes of others. Breast milk co-evolved to feed the growing garden in an infant's gut. We exchange microbes when we hug and kiss or have a pet in the house. Today, Ara Katz, co-founder of Seed, talks about the importance of microbes and how they can impact the health of our bodies, our children, and our planet.
Jeff: Ara Katz. How's your gut today?
Ara Katz: Resilient.
Jeff: Good. That's how I make all my friends. Just ask them how their gut is.
Ara Katz: Would they probably answer differently than the nerdy scientist in my office?
Jeff: Fair enough. I also like to say, I'm not myself today, because I'm actually not myself. And maybe that's a decent place to start. Why am I not myself from a microbiota perspective?
Ara Katz: Sure. Well, tell me if it's helpful to first start off by aligning on our semantics.
Jeff: Yes, please.
Ara Katz: So, the microbiome is technically the collection of microbes and microorganisms that live on and within our bodies, that includes your skin, and really any surface that touches the exterior world. We learned recently there's an optical microbiome. But the reason that people usually refer to the microbiome and gut health kind of interchangeably is just because the majority of actually the 38 trillion microbes that live in and on you, a big majority of them do live in your GI tract in your gut, specifically like lower GI tract.
Ara Katz: And microbes make up about 50% of you by cell count. There was a long time ago or even still today, some people use the 90-10 rule or stat, which has been kind of disproven in science and actually was kind of a piece of misinformation that just kind of kept getting repeated. But the most recent count that we work from is the Weitzman Institute paper that puts it at about 38 trillion, which does put it out about half yourself cell count about equal to half your cell count. And that is why you're not yourself.
Ara Katz:Because you are other as microbes kind of teach us in three to five pounds of your body in exchange for some food and nutrients and a really warm place to live, takes care of you, and is involved in a lot of functions in your body.
Ara Katz: And existentially, it's really interesting and in the way you phrase the question because the microbiome actually kind of does redefine our sense of selves, particularly as we define ourselves as so different from other and that can be kind of anything, either groups of people or just anybody else. Because we really are kind of these teaming ecosystems.
Ara Katz: We like to tell people that there are coral reef or a rainforest, which is a beautiful way of thinking about it. That we are actually referred to there's kind of a technical term called Holobionts, which means multispecies organisms or superorganism, which is another term for it. And superorganism or Holobionts just means that you are a multispecies organism, much like a coral reef is.
Ara Katz: And so, it's an interesting way of thinking about ourselves and certainly opens up a lot of ways of thinking about how we're much more connected to one another and to the earth than I think we'd like to think sometimes.
Jeff: Yeah, you've taken it-
Ara Katz: Although probably not your audience.
Jeff: Well, no, you've taken it actually quickly, to the place where I eventually wanted to go, which is a little bit of the spiritual or metaphysical dimension of essentially not truly being ourselves or being in sort of a cotenancy relationship with bacteria and fungi. And I started thinking about it earlier today of essentially all spiritual, well, not all spiritual, but many spiritual traditions lead us towards this notion of self-transcendence. That in every spiritual tradition, there's been kind of epiphanies around the illusory self, around finding unity, collective unconscious, Christ Consciousness, Brahman, Advaita, Moksha, on and on.
Jeff: But our day-to-day life, our quotidian life, especially in western culture, is to think of ourselves very much as separate beings. And yet, this individuation that we have starts with the belief that we are our bodies that's very kind of union. It's like myself, my identity ends with my epidermis. That's it. And you're a separate, distinct individual living in an external universe separate from me, separate from "God", separate from nature.
Jeff: But that really starts to break down around if you start to ask and examine and contemplate the question, am I my body? Well, you can start to talk. Well, I'm on my four-year-old body, you have a four-year-old. I have three teenagers. Am I my 15-year-old body that was quite spelt? Am I my COVID body that's five pounds little extra.
Jeff: That kind of starts to break down as many of our cells have died and regenerated. But this notion that we are mostly or 50% bugs, it really does beg that spiritual question of like, am I really myself in a classic definition. And if you're asking that, then am I really separate from nature and from other people? And that is a very different kind of conversation around the typical conversation in microbiomes. So, I wonder if you have any other thoughts about that.
Ara Katz: Yeah. I mean, it's so interesting because I've been a yogi for a really long time, and I'm actually the daughter of an existential psychologist, but also two atheists, which is interesting and the notion of like, and at the same time, I have been a longtime aspire to the ideas of nonattachment and certainly what that can mean and how freeing I think that can be.
Ara Katz: And I sometimes get hesitant around the ascription and patterns that these people who want to ascribe spiritual meaning to these things start to take liberties in even though in my, of course, they feel very nurturing and warm and beautiful in their ideas. And I think that there's a lot of them like I'll give you a good example as you're speaking, you said some people think their body ends with their skin or that you and with your skin.
Ara Katz: But when you start to understand something called the exposome, which is literally this microbial cloud. In the spiritual world, they would probably refer to it as an aura. There's literally a cloud that surrounds like your microbes are not just on you. There is literally a cloud around you that is defined by many, many things, particularly environmental factors.
Ara Katz: And so, sometimes it's not dissimilar to kind of some of the liberties that are taken in the leap from astronomy to astrology. And so, one of the things that I do like to pressure test a bit when I get into some more spiritual and existential questions about this, which by the way, in a very human sense, I want to be true.
Ara Katz: So, just start from that place that I would love all of those things to be able to just be copy and pasted into that framework. But one of the things that I do always challenge back about, and I can speak to some of the ways that I think it can inform the way we make choices and the way we live and the think about our connectivity to one another. And I think sometimes those patterns and narratives will serve us.
Ara Katz: But sometimes the science thinker in me or I should say the thinker that wants to avoid confirmation bias and not be attached to a framework, and therefore go look into biology to support ideas and spiritual frameworks because that's the way that I want to already see the world and therefore make that pattern fit, what I want it to say is something that I do caution people about.
Ara Katz: And I only say that not because those ideas are not beautiful and that they could serve us. Obviously, everybody who's making policy around the oil and gas industry thought like that. I think we'd have a very different Earth right now. So, I do think that the ideas and attendants are very valuable.
Ara Katz: What I sometimes get worried, no, I shouldn't say worried about, but just where it doesn't resonate as much. And particularly, I'm just not somebody that delivers my agency to the universe. So, the language of the universe called in or this is what was called in, not because I'm not an incredibly spiritual person, but I sometimes think the way that we start to see patterns or start to take ideas in science or biology or some of these other disciplines, and then infer these patterns and then make frameworks around them as a way to make sense of our world is incredibly human, by the way. Obviously, Man's Search for Meaning, great book.
Ara Katz: And I understand the love of astrology despite the fact that maybe many of those planets cannot actually be in retrograde astronomically and I appreciate where it all comes from. But I sometimes wonder if we're so interested in science, why don't we spend the same amount of time learning it and understanding it as we do some of these other disciplines instead of just trying to cherry pick ideas out of it that fits spiritual framework.
Ara Katz: So, I say all that to say, absolutely, biology shows us how deeply interconnected everything is. When you start to understand like the exposome or even the exchange of microbes in a hug, in a kiss, in a handshake, in understanding how walking and being in nature increases the diversity of your own microbiome, how having a dog increases the diversity of your own microbiome, the way that plants interact with the microbes in our gut, the way that breast milk and microbes that come from the vaginal microbiome coevolved to literally feed the growing garden in an infant's gut is extraordinary. But sometimes I say let it be extraordinary without layering on what you also wanted to be.
Jeff: Yes. I think that's a very insightful comment. And I'll just close the sort of the loop between kind of the alloying of science and metaphysics with, and I'm certainly not a proponent of like, well, two crows flew past the harvest moon and I have a crystal on my doorstep and like whatever. I'm not going there. But what I am interested in often is 2500 years ago, a man wandered through Nepal because he was interested in trying to solve the mystery of the mind and came to the conclusion that our suffering is completely interrelated with endless craving and desire and subsequently created Buddhism and meditation around that, with no scientific basis whatsoever.
Ara Katz: Yes, yeah.
Jeff: Yet that intuitive approach is now being supported through evidence-based study. So, sometimes I do think that there is an alloying of these two things.
Ara Katz: Absolutely, yes.
Jeff: But I think back to the empirical world of today and COVID, one thing that you brought up, which I think is very prescient to the moment is now of course, we're kind of in this coerced monasticism through social distancing, and having to deal with health and immune system-
Ara Katz: What I like to call self-proximity.
Jeff: Right. Yeah. And what you say about the transfer that our interconnectivity in some ways has been brought into stark relief like never before, right now in this particular situation. But obviously the best thing that we can do for one another is actually not be with one another, which is ironic, I suppose. But the transfer of microbiome of healthy bacteria through physical contact is a really just compelling idea right now because I think there is this great worry that that's going away. And we're going to sort of limp back into a world of hand sanitizers and elbow bumps.
Ara Katz: Yes.
Jeff: Does that worry you?
Ara Katz: We get asked this a lot. I think it's interesting. Some people, I was thinking about this the other day that in some ways, like this is kind of the definition of a form of terrorism, right? Like it is truly what it means like when a terrorist isn't the most successful is when it really questions and totally changes the way anything you felt previously felt safe.
Ara Katz: I worry about it because of the way that these things are being communicated to the public. I think some of the things that I think are the greatest factors contributing to, for example, what we refer to as the climate change of our insights, which is really like this kind of despeciation or the just literally the decrease of diversity of bacteria that are in our guts that are actually being lost in one two generations and can't be brought back just due to lack of fiber, overuse of antibiotics and other factors.
Ara Katz: I think in some ways, there's a way to look at it that says, oh, we'll start so we won't hug anymore. And I think it's not dissimilar to the stages of grief, right? There will be stages to this that have very and depending on where you are and who you are and what your orientation is, and certainly what your experience was of this specific inception of this, and you can look at HIV. You can look at, I mean Ebola a little less so just because it didn't end up really affecting the developing world in the same way.
Ara Katz: But you can look at the history of these things over time and really anything like 9/11, I mean, other things that have caused major disruptions and our sense of safety and our place in the world. And I think that there will be, yes, I think, I don't know if hand sanitizer is going away. I think it will like in the western world, especially we're very acute reactors. So, like, we are just incredibly reactive and then like not dissimilar the way like Instagram feeds work, although this would be slower.
Ara Katz: And then you just stop caring about it. It's kind of the reason that if you run a brand right now, a campaign lives for a second. And I think this will absolutely impact the way we think about and take this thing seriously. But I think they'll also be some really important humility that comes from it. I think the earth is benefiting at the moment.
Ara Katz: And I think that there's a sense of arrogance that we had previously that may and I'm not as worried about hand sanitizer as much as forgetting some of the factors that went into this. If you look, as you know obviously, the Holocaust that pushed people to use the term like never forget, but there's a reason that that exists.
Ara Katz: And that is because history repeats itself. And I think that, I actually hope things don't go back to the way they were in certain regards because I'm not sure that was serving our Earth as I think we are finding out right now. But I'm not as worried about the more acute, like I think hand sanitizer will kind of taper off as the acute concerns happen with obviously transmission.
Ara Katz: I'm not as worried about ending in a world of just elbow bumps. But I think that for sure for a period of time, as you know, the reintegration will definitely have a lot of murkiness and muddiness to it, that we will have to find our way through, that I think people aren't anticipating as much as it's easier to kind of just have a black or white situation right now, which is like only do this. And I think in the gray, like anything else in the nuance, we will find ourselves for a period of time, like a bit more lost.
Jeff: We're sort of often in the old paradigm. We're sort of born to think, well, my parents passed me along this DNA and that DNA sort of dooms me to a particular physiological or medical fate. I'm more likely to contact cancer, I contract cancer, I'm more likely to have heart disease, et cetera. And you can speak more intelligently to this than I can.
Jeff: But it seems like understanding more and more about our microbiome is saying, no, no, no, that's actually not true. Yeah, there is some proclivity that you inherit. But largely, you have a tremendous amount of agency that is determined by lifestyle, behavior, environment, diet, et cetera.
Ara Katz: I always tell men that if you truly understand the microbiome, it might be the closest you'll ever feel to being pregnant. Because when you're pregnant, you feel this incredible accountability and the lens through which what goes in is so attuned to what is good for this child, at least for people who are going through pregnancy a bit more consciously.
Ara Katz: And so, I always say to guys, if you could just think of your microbiome, it's three to five pounds. So, it's about the same weight for most of up until maybe the third trimester or mid third trimester. And I'm like, it's kind of the same idea.
Ara Katz: And so, yes, I think you're absolutely right. The actionability in the agency is extraordinary. And that's just the gut we're talking about. When you start to understand your skin microbiome and the things that can be incredibly disruptive there, when you start to understand the vaginal microbiome for women, for particularly for anyone in your audience who has recurrent urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginosis preterm birth, I mean, BB and UTI affects over 50% of women in the entire world, developing and developed worlds for which there's currently actually no recognized primary standard of care.
Ara Katz: And so, these are huge ... that all come from this ecosystem in our vaginas that are directly correlated with things like fertility and that long-term health of that ecosystem. And so, anyway, so yes. I think science also reveals more and more about these specific ecosystems. I mean, the oral microbiome, I think is going to be incredibly interesting as we start to understand neurodegenerative disease, for example. That's been really interesting new area of understanding the blood brain barrier breakdown and certain neurodegenerative diseases and its relationship with the mouth and the microbes in our mouth.
Ara Katz: So, yeah, I think over time, your question will become even more true. I just, again, always urge the sensationalism that sometimes come from extracting or evangelizing maybe a bit further than where the evidence is today.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. No, I can feel that. I mean, I follow Dr. Steven Gundry to some degree and some of the statistics that are posited around ... And I don't know if this is true, so maybe you could answer this question, but that your genetic makeup, just because of the prevalence of bacteria in your gut, in your mouth, on your skin, and the DNA that it holds versus the amount of genes that a human has, which I think is from the Human Genome Project-
Ara Katz: It's about 99 to 1.
Jeff: Yeah. So that your DNA might look a lot more like your roommates than your dad.
Ara Katz: Yeah, it's totally conflated science.
Ara Katz: It's a nice idea and it is a stat that gets thrown around a lot. And this stat itself is correct. Your bacteria express about 99 times, something crazy like that, more DNA than your human cells.
Ara Katz: You have to then ask the next question is, but for what? Right. DNA, it's not all created equal. Meaning, yes, it's all created equal, it's the same code. But what it's coding for is different. And so, it's a very reductive, sensational stat that tends to get people's ears to perk up. But you need to ask the next following questions, which is like my cofounder, Raja always says, "I'll take some of my human DNA over microbial DNA all day."
Ara Katz: So, you really need to know what it's coding for and you need to be specific when you quote things that, because it can feel quite sensational. And the idea that your entire human genome is going to look more your like roommates just because bacteria happened to express more genes is it's a nice idea and as a marketer and someone who has to tell get them out to as many people as possible about the microbiome, there's no one that wishes that that was more true.
Jeff: Right. Yeah, I was going to say, you are incredibly honest and perhaps reluctant marketer for your own product. But I think it speaks to your authenticity. You want to get the science right.
Ara Katz: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it speaks to our integrity. I mean, one of the things that we care so, so deeply about and aforementioned people of influence in health and wellness amongst many others, I think often use some of these ideas to sell things in a way, that's not exactly how they work. And I think it takes advantage of people's misunderstanding. But more than anything actually propagates a lot of misinformation that when it comes to moments like COVID, you can't have it both ways.
Ara Katz: And so, I think we just care so deeply because we know that if you can understand ... It's teach a human to fish. You can tell someone how great the fish is all day and make up all kinds of cool things about the fish. But at the end of the day, if they know how to dissect an article on any name, any of the wellness sites or anything or just the way information is coming into them through an influencer on Instagram and can at least be equipped with asking the right questions, the agencies, talk about agency, the agency that comes from being able to ask questions is incredibly extraordinary.
Ara Katz: And so, what we try and say is not that I mean, look, I believe deeply in our product. We're about to announce huge trial at Harvard. We just got authorized for IND from the FDA, which means that it's a product that holds up as a drug if we wanted it to be just from a safety efficacy perspective. But we played a long game. And the long game with human health is how could you empower people to make really good decisions, not just you tell people what to do all day, you're as good as the next article, the clickbait that they receive in the next influencer that post something.
Jeff: Yeah. I want to come back at some point to ask you a question about pregnancy and bacteria. But we're on this kind of other jag right now. So, we'll stay with it, which is essentially I think the problem, the marketing problem that science has, and boy, is that in stark relief right now, given the fact that we have no dependable source of truth on cable news or from our government and we need to look towards the CDC and the World Health Organization and platforms that aren't known for their marketing savvy per se.
Jeff: And I'm wondering, and you've addressed it a bit already, but how do you solve the marketing problem that science has without being somewhat sensationalist? And maybe you tie that to Seed because Seed is very interesting. I mean, I sort of at first don't even really know what it does outside. It just sort of like it's this womb I want to return to. I know it has a product. I know that there's research, but I'm like a podcast guy-
Ara Katz: You wouldn't know we have product. We don't talk about it.
Jeff: Yeah, which I think is really compelling and interesting. But maybe you could poke at that for a moment.
Ara Katz: Yes. Yeah. Of course. Yeah. I mean, I was laughing. I was going to say, I don't know what Seed [inaudible 00:33:16]. But no, I mean, our through line is the microbial world. And all we wake up every day to do is kind of pioneer ways that we can apply microbes to solve issues in human and environmental health. So, that's it for us. And because we think of those two things is the same. Obviously, it's a dichotomy we recognize but not one that we embrace.
Ara Katz: Our approach, and I think one of the things we've been recognized for actually we just got a couple of wars for it is one, outside of pursuing kind of rigorous science, both for consumer innovations and probiotics, but also in the therapeutics front and microbes that will go through kind of phase trials to become drugs that are UTI drug is one that we've spoken about publicly as an example, is that the same rigor and integrity that we apply to our products is kind of our approach with the way that science has translated and communicated.
Ara Katz: Marshall McLuhan in the '70s and it's one of the most resonating quotes I think for me in looking at this new world of where we are with COVID couldn't be more true is that the medium is the message.
Ara Katz: But we think a lot about what are the mediums and the doors that we could create, that somebody would want to walk through first. So, that's saying, okay, how can you make science cool and accessible and feel culturally relevant? So, that's one of the first things we think about, which is how could you do that? How do you use platforms like Instagram, where the most egregious behaviors around misinformation actually happen? Or Facebook? And how could you take that medium and change the message?
Ara Katz: And that's a big part of my background in storytelling, especially with technology and interfaces, what are the gestures that you have to pull from people's existing behavior that you could say but you could still learn science here, while you're scrolling at night before you go to bed, while you want to click through stories, learn something.
Ara Katz: And so, I think you have to figure out how can you meet people where they are?
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. I made this little social media piece myself called Where is Walter? I think it's called Where the Hell is Walter Cronkite?
Ara Katz: Yeah.
Jeff: Because whether you're on the right or the left, when he said it, it was just fact whether you like it or not, that there was a reliable source of what was truth and factual that create a degree of social cohesion that allowed us to tackle problems communally. And yeah, I mean, when we can't even really agree on the numbers, where there's the CDC saying one thing and at the same time that there's a press conference about reopening America. I mean, literally, in the same moment.
Jeff: It's just very, very confusing. Then well, so, if some of our public institutions, if there's erosion of trust there, well, then whose responsibility is it? Neil deGrasse Tyson?
Ara Katz: Yeah.
Jeff: You have to meet people where they are.
Jeff: I look also at COVID is that the meme actually has a higher reproduction rate than the virus. And so, when people you look at how information spreads exponentially versus droplets on a surface, that represents a tremendous amount of power and it needs to be dealt with, with integrity. Or you get essentially the wild west where any conspiracy theory can get a certain amount of traction to the point where otherwise, rational people become vectors for theories that have no proven basis. And it's a very, very difficult landscapers. I sometimes think of it as the end of truth.
Ara Katz: I mean, it is truly beyond dangerous and the inability for anybody to evolve their opinions will be the end of us. And truly, that's one of the reasons I always say science is such a Buddhist discipline, the scientific method, which is the idea that you pose a question, you have a hypothesis, you construct a set of conditions under which you would like to test whether or not there's truth and facts and even your own idea. And then there's a period of observation and then analysis, and then a new question, without any attachment. I mean, of course, I am speaking as a purist, obviously, you can get into many areas where, of course there's-
Jeff: Yes, I'm not sure that's the same hammer that Johnson and Johnson uses, but yes. I'm following you.
Ara Katz: Sure, but from an academic perspective or from just a philosophical perspective, since you did talk about other spiritual and philosophical disciplines, the underlying idea of it is how do you ask questions without the attachment to outcome and then chart a true, a path to finding out whether or not something is true.
Jeff: I suppose there is kind of through cultural hegemony, media, whatever, that we are very good at sort of transferring what is culture to what is nature, which is essentially taking ideas that are positive about the human condition that are purely cultural and historical, and making them universally true. America is the land of opportunity or whatever. Any slogan that you could possibly think of is, I suppose an example of that transference from culture to nature.
Ara Katz: Yeah. I mean, I don't really see the constitution or the Bible much more differently.
Jeff: True. Yeah.
Ara Katz: Any kind of codified-
Jeff: Yes, codified set of concepts that create an imagined order that are supposed to create sort of stability.
Ara Katz: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that thought, that's not how it works. I mean, just to go back to the microbiome, there's great examples of there's insects that don't have microbes, right? It's easy to be like, all living things require microbes and then you find all the outliers and you think about and then you realize that there's a lot to learn from the species and the animals that actually don't have any microbes.
Ara Katz: And so, I think that's what's so hard is in a liberal democracy, I think that is a beautiful idea if there was a toleration of nuance. And if the yuckiness of how we've decided to enforce and how technologies have changed the way that those systems work, it's so much of the ideas in so many cases is not bad, but it's the execution.
Jeff: Right. I mean, let's just go. I'll try to create a mildly graceful bridge. Where, for example, the innovation, medical innovation around, for example, childbirth, C-section technology, if you will, is created for what one might argue under positive, beneficial auspices, the health of the mother, the health of the child. But of course now, what we're experiencing is through, I mean over usage of antibiotics, C-section, everything essentially that happened in the hospital during childbirth, the children are losing healthy bacteria.
Ara Katz: Vaginal and C-section is something that I always caution being too sensational about just because absolutely, vaginal birth is more desirable for sure. And there are places in the world like Brazil, where the rates are just over 70% because women don't want a disrupted vagina. And there's many other cultural things that are happening.
Ara Katz: However, there's a lot of research that does show and it's still up for debate that in the absence of antibiotics and the presence of breastfeeding, a vaginal versus C-section babies microbiome will start to converge. They will start to look the same after about a year to 24 months, depending on how long they're breastfed and as long as there is not any administration directly to the infant of antibiotics.
Ara Katz: So, I only say that because sometimes I get very hesitant because so many women who have had no choice really get shamed a lot and get a lot of messages that feel like they've kind of done such a huge disservice to their child if they had to have one. And so, I just try and be incredibly sensitive to say that yes, it's not the first most desirable way. But it doesn't mean that you're fucked forever. If some of these other things, other conditions are met.
Ara Katz: And so, I think that's just one thing to just kind of mention. But absolutely, and then breastfeeding being another incredibly important part of it because actually about a third of the carbohydrates in breast milk, which are called HMOs. They're called human milk oligosaccharides, are actually not digestible by the human baby. And they are only food for the infant's microbiome.
Ara Katz: Which just shows you from an evolutionary perspective how extraordinary that is. And on top of that, there is bacteria on a mother's nipple that helps digest lactose, which you can just see from again, from an evolutionary perspective, how extraordinary this kind of dance and how we coevolved with these microbes to kind of create this perfect situation to cultivate the best garden possible.
Jeff: That is fascinating.
Ara Katz: Yeah.
Jeff: I did not know that. That is fascinating. Yeah, and I suppose just sort of the, just the cotenancies arrangement from the get go. And I don't know if this is true, but maybe you can help me understand it is that as the Earth evolved and became more aerobic, essentially more oxygenated that anaerobic organisms needed a place to go. And one of those places to go was our gut.
Jeff: And that we have this kind of, sort of beautiful romance there where it's like ... I used to kind of think of it as a sort of a landlord-tenant kind of situation. We take care of the plumbing and then they'll pay their rent or whatever. Have fun with that. But it's really more of a ...
Ara Katz: A commune?
Jeff: Yeah. I love you. Yeah. Yeah, it feels like it, right?
Ara Katz: Yes. Yes, it does. I mean, as I said, it's always like ... Yes. I mean, it definitely does feel that way. I think they get what they need. I think what you have to remember about single-celled organisms and really most, I mean, many species and the way biology, biologists, I think is ... And this is how humans are wired, although this is where it gets incredibly perverted, which is, we just want to persist. Our biology is to persist, it's to continue life.
Ara Katz: And if you look at COVID and that's ultimately one of the most interesting constructs and certainly why bacteria got a bad rap by some scientists, who of course attributed it as being almost entirely all pathogenic is really how we got here. So to your point about the importance of communicating science or other or a very, very small percentage of microbes are pathogenic or bad. Most of them are kind of what they would call commensal or some of them are many are neutral and not many are symbiotic or beneficial. And more are beneficial and are commensal.
Ara Katz: And so, it's interesting because the way we got here was basically the belief and certainly, there's other context to this that were very different. Sewage systems then, I mean, there's a lot of reasons why disease, our communicable diseases, particularly bacterial-based ones spread so quickly.
Ara Katz: There's context obviously to that because we live more in the built environment now, which has different protections because of the way we dispose of sewage and our exposure to the things that made some of these things so pathogenic in different parts of history. But the built environment is actually the perfect place for a microbe to replicate and find new hosts, i.e., what we're experiencing right now with COVID.
Ara Katz: And so, when I look at how bacteria, the perception of bacteria has evolved over time, it's fascinating that we just ... I mean, yeah, we just tried to kill it for a really long time. And I think that framework is actually partially what got us here. And the question will be how, to your question earlier, how do we get out of this without trying to continue to kill it all?
Jeff: Well, it speaks to an incredibly anthropocentric version of the world. It's sort of a pre-Galileo concept around biology or something and you could put yourself into another perspective. I mean, there is, what is the bacteria's eye of the universe. What does the universe look through their eye, which is potentially not that different than us from a Darwinistic perspective. It's like we could be seen as sort of meat wagons for our genes through the gene diversion of the universe. It's like all they want to do is replicate, randomly select and then push forward.
Jeff: And I suppose that's what this particular novel coronavirus wants to do as well. I suppose from a bacterial perspective, that's what bacteria wants to do too. And that there is a, I guess, a sort of a broader picture of looking at life, not through just the human eye.
Ara Katz: Yes, of course, very much so. Absolutely. One look at the Venice, Italy canals right now and ...
Jeff: I think that what you guys are doing at Seed is really, really fascinating and interesting. How you're approaching this subject is so innovative, and also just feels beautiful. I don't know who does all your look and feel and design but it's gorgeous.
Ara Katz: Thank you.
Jeff: And I have a lot of respect for that from a business perspective.
Ara Katz: No, thank you. Yeah, we do. Well, I mean, but that is a big part of communicating science, which is I think a lot of it is the aesthetic of science.
Ara Katz: Never feels quite humanistic or beautiful. Again, it's not usually a door to walk through.
Ara Katz: It's usually just feels incredibly cold and clinical and just kind of too complicated or has that biotech kind of graphic that you've seen of the human body. And look, there's a reason that I think people wellness and the aesthetic of wellness is so appealing because he doesn't want avocado toast that looks like that when you put it on a beautiful plate and you take a picture, you put your phone above it and it's like who doesn't want. There's a warmth and a nurturing quality and an aesthetic to kind of the way wellness has come up that I think is incredibly appealing and aspirational. And I think science has never really figured out how to meet people where they are like that.
Ara Katz: It's one of the things we try and be kind of careful about just because I think in the same way that it is, of course, a world that we speak to, I have also found it to be quite exclusive and not very accessible to many.
Ara Katz: And so, we try and be a bit careful actually about the avocado toast effect. Because I think I sometimes say wellness is the new Photoshop, which is it has created an aesthetic that for many is actually not possible or that they don't see themselves reflected. And then I think we try and be careful there too.
Jeff: Yeah. No, you're absolutely correct. And I think that's why you see a lot of kind of polarization across political, social, where sort of this coastal approach to being seen as sort of feat and unconnected and et cetera.
Ara Katz: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting, yes, a lot of people sometimes think probiotics are this kind of coastal wellness thing. But actually, they're not. It's very much driven by kind of two very main factors in the US, specifically, I can speak to other countries, but probiotics are regulated quite differently in other places, but for the most part, it's kind of to two distinct use cases. One is GI health, digestive health, which we know, I think our last stat that we cited was 64 plus percent of Americans have GI issues, which is a huge and a really big problem.
Ara Katz: And so, really probiotic sales are driven by pretty dispersed because of just how disrupted digestion is in the US and GI health in general. You can look at just even conditions like IBS, which affects something like 12% of the population, which is crazy.
Ara Katz: And then and then really as a complement, or alongside antibiotics, of which about 70 million prescriptions are written in the US every year, over half of which are for things of nonbacterial origin, which means that it's not something you should take an antibiotic for. But what's happened is that pharmacists and doctors have started saying just make sure you take a probiotic either alongside or after this. And those are really the two cases despite the fact that those two reasons are not really what everyone's chats about on Instagram, or what you see influencers always post about.
Ara Katz: That's kind of what's driven the probiotics business and then not to mention, the fact that the term itself is not regulated in the US. So, people can say probiotic anything in the US. You can't do that in other parts of the world. But that is part of why it's grown so quickly. And most of those things that used to term are not probiotic at all.
Jeff: Yeah. And I suppose that there's all sorts of varying degrees of probiotic versus live probiotics versus probiotics that are essentially probably just an expensive pee.
Ara Katz: There's no difference. So, the scientific definition of probiotics was written for the WHO and the UN in 2000. I believe the first iteration was in 2001. And it's been revised since. And it says that it's live microorganisms that when administered in adequate dosages confers a health benefit to the human host or confers the benefits to the human host, very specific scientific definition.
Ara Katz: If you unpack it, it means that it is an organism that is live. A dosage that has been adequately studied to whatever the end marker or the benefit or the clinical outcome that you're looking for, and has a benefit to the human host means it's been studied clinically and measured to have some sort of very specific outcome or marker. And there's an incredibly specific scientific definition. We wrote a paper about this last year called Probiotics: Reiterating What They Are and What They Are Not for both industry but also for the scientific community because there's still a lot of misunderstanding and confusion and misuse of the term.
Ara Katz: And it's not that confusing in science. What gets confusing is the lack of regulation around the term itself, which is why you can have probiotic tortilla chips, chocolate pillows, and every kombucha on the shelf claims to be that.
Jeff: Right. God, that's so fascinating. Thank you so much for your time. I know that you're running a business with a four-year-old in the ground. And I'd love to do it again, because I think that there's this topic is so rich and boundless. And I really appreciate you taking out the time today.
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