Thursday, November 18, 2010


Anne has been bugging me to pay more attention to my bugs.

Hey, wait. I know they are there. I've written about them.

By some estimates, there is a kilogram's worth of bacteria in my gut. A kilogram! Commensal, they are called -- eating at the same table. That's a lot of bugs.

Like everyone else, I was born pristine. Just me, myself and I. But no sooner did I poke my nose into the world than bacteria, fungi and viruses started colonizing my nooks and crannies, like the colonization of a new island arisen from the sea. It's called the human microbiome. Wave after wave of pioneers entered my body by every access.

Everyone has a gut full of bugs and Anne is convinced they are doing more than sharing a table. Maybe they are even -- gasp! --affecting my thoughts.

Can she be right?

By now you may have heard about experiments with fruit flies by researchers at Tel Aviv University. By diet and a judicious use of antibiotics, they showed that gut bacteria had an effect on the sexual preference of their hosts. Flies with bacteria of a predominant strain somehow made their host prefer mates with the same strain of gut residents. Smell is the presumed mechanism by which a fly advertises a particular microbiome.

So, dear sister, what should I conclude? Is the secret to a happy marriage sharing the same bugs? Did I detect in my spouse a certain cooling of affection several years ago when I went on a month-long course of antibiotics to rid my body of Lyme disease -- and heaven knows what else? Are my own gut bacteria frustrated in their forlorn attempt to manipulate my sexual preference by my lack of a sense of smell? Is that attractive woman who batted her eyes at me the yesterday attracted to my bacteria? Gee, and I thought it was my dashing good looks.

It is now possible to transplant an entire digestive track into someone whose system has been ruined by disease. It used to be that the physicians first flushed the new track clean of microorganisms before transplanting, then relied on recolonization. Now it is apparently standard practice to leave in place the microbiome that came from the donor. A transplanted gut and transplanted bugs. Someone else's bugs.

And when the patient comes home from hospital to his waiting mate...
The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away