The Empire of the Human Microbiome

Scientific American has posted an interactive webpage illustrating the human microbiome, in conjunction with an upcoming feature on “Your Inner Ecosystem.” The aesthetic of the page is, unsurprisingly, very rationalized and textbook-like, in contrast to the industrial music-video style of Micro-empire.

Illustration by Bryan Christie. Click through for the interactive version at scientificamerican.com.

It is interesting to note that the model here is female, a choice made in order to show the unique bacterial colonies inhabiting the vagina, while everything above the genital area presumably represents a “universal” human. There is no indication what microorganisms, if any, are specific to the male urogenital tract. To what extent, then, does man’s absence suggest his immunity to the micro-empire, not to mention his frequent recalcitrance toward the anatomising glare of technoscientific visualization?

That question aside, the interactive applet offers a slick vision of the uncanny, unseen world “from beyond” that nonetheless envelops and permeates human bodies. The creatures of this world, moreover, are crucial to human life. Part of the argument put forward by Scientific American has to do with revised understandings of the role of micro-organisms in the maintenance of human health. There is also a sense of the spectacular to fulfill the journalistic intent of the magazine, with quantitative factoids that invoke the enormity of this unseen world:

  • The body contains 10 times more bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms than human cells.
  • About 3.3 million genes are contained in the bacteria of the human gut, far outnumbering the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 genes that people inherit from their parents.

Despite the essential role micro-organisms play in the constitution of human life and the magnitude of their presence, the graphics here convey the appearance of a human individual plus its microbiome, suggesting a partnership of preconstituted entities.  Yet I feel it is more compelling to think in terms of what Donna Haraway calls “companion species,” where “the partners do not precede the partnership,” as she repeatedly says.  Human life, not to mention that of any multicellular life-form, emerges as a vast company and community of diverse entities, an ecology even at the level of the so-called “individual.”

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