Reciprocity and Possibility
If you’ve been to my home state of Vermont in the fall or live somewhere equally enchanting at this time of year, you know the fanfare that comes with Earth shifting its relative position to the sun.
The green fades, and the land glows with gold and red in one last brave blast of color. No matter that I’ve lived here for decades,I’m always awed at how effortlessly nature leaves behind her greenery, offering it back to the soil.
And in the greater world, there are other changes and transformations. You’ve heard it before: we are living in a historic time. In our strange new world, we protect the greater good with masks and distance even while we long for connection with each other.
But like the trees preparing for winter, we pull inward for now and release old ways of being both for self-preservation and as an act of generosity. Like gold and red leaves drifting to the forest floor to feed the tiniest microbes, which in turn nourish the forest that gives us oxygen to breathe, this reciprocity holds possibility for new life beyond the known, and in the unknown.
This, dear friend, is the biome in all its goodness and glory: our greater ecological community that gives and receives, an interkingdom reciprocity that exists in an ongoing dialog, a conversation that connects us all from the tallest tree to the smallest microbe.
Whatever your season, whether you are in the tropics or the Arctic, and even if nature is scarce or less obvious in your corner of the world, still you are not separate from the biome, but an integral part of this interkingdom give-and-take, perhaps more than you are aware.
Right this moment, you are hanging out with trillions of lifeforms, as well as the entities on the fringe of life, viruses, which have made us who we are today. Perhaps this is not the sort of company you find all that comforting, but back away for a moment from the hand sanitizer and read on...
Chances are you’ve heard about the microbiome and you know it has something to do with your gut. You know it’s important but what is it really, and what does it mean?
The answers to those questions are not simple nor fully understood, but that you have several trillion microorganisms living on and in you (but who's counting?) is one known fact. Although your partnership with this universe is invisible, it’s not silent—not by a long shot.
Your body is an entire world, a habitat to billions and billions of microbes: bacteria, protozoa, archaea, yeast, fungi, mites, and viruses.
Four Mind-Blowing Facts About Viruses
And if that known fact doesn’t spin your head around like it does mine, this might. Humans have co-existed with the microbiome throughout evolution, through everything from ice ages to infections and elections. As we live and breathe, they are our co-pilots intent on navigating through our evolutionary success, because where we go, they go.
Biomes Upon Biomes
To get a fuller picture, let’s zoom out for a bird’s eye view to look at yourself with imaginary microbe-detecting glasses. First, that swirling aura around your body is your own personal microbial cloud, shedding microbes into the air and surfaces (and yes, other people, too). Zooming in a bit closer, you see bacteria, fungi, yeast, viruses, and mites hanging out on your skin, hair, eyelashes, and eyes. Every fold and crevice is home to distinct communities and species. Now on the inside, you see there are microbes in your nose, mouth, genitals, and even your lungs. And of course, your large intestine is home to your gut microbiome.
All your microbial partners, biomes upon biomes, tend to the rich and diverse garden of your personal ecosystem.
These partners and communities metabolize what you ingest and what you apply to your body (even including your skincare potions), protecting you from pathogens, maintaining balancing, influencing hormones, and producing metabolic byproducts, vitamins, and neurotransmitters that help maintain your overall health of body and mind.
Some conscientious objectors of the status quo, such evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis, have the brilliance and imagination to suggest that you are not merely a human; you are a holobiont. Just as a forest is its own ecological unit, so are you, an entity made of your own cells and all the species in your microbiome, communicating, cooperating, and networking. According to hologenome theory, holobiont communities also borrow, transfer, and mutate genes, potentially enhancing evolution.
If this sounds like science fiction, it is not as freaky as it sounds! After all, the living world relies on relationship, symbiosis, synergy, and communication to even just exist in the first place. As Lynn Margulis said, “Life did not take over the world by combat, but by networking” (1997, p. 29).
This is a perfect reminder that as we face the challenges of our time, the cooperation and communication that has gotten us this far is what will see us through—if we are wise enough to stay on the path of connection and reciprocity.
Like the bright autumn trees so generously giving of themselves, with no expectation of individual return, we are here to share our gifts for each other...and for the biome.
Genetics Society of America. (2016). Viruses revealed to be a major driver of human evolution: Study tracking protein adaptation over millions of years yields insights relevant to fighting today's viruses. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 4, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160713100911.htm
Koonin E. V. (2010). The wonder world of microbial viruses. Expert review of anti-infective therapy, 8(10), 1097–1099. https://doi.org/10.1586/eri.10.96
Margulis, L. (1997). Microcosmos: Four billion years of microbial evolution. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Mokili, J. L., Rohwer, F., & Dutilh, B. E. (2012). Metagenomics and future perspectives in virus discovery. Current opinion in virology, 2(1), 63–77. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.coviro.2011.12.004
Pride, D., & Ghose, C. (2018). Meet the trillions of viruses that make up your virome. Retrieved October 14, 2020, from https://theconversation.com/meet-the-trillions-of-viruses-that-make-up-your-virome-104105
Wu, K. (2020). There are more viruses than stars in the universe. Why do only some infect us? National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/factors-allow-viruses-infect-humans-coronavirus/