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Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Community Conversation - Part 4

A Community Conversation About Health and Responsibility: Vaccines and Beyond

Part 4: Blogs, Beatrix Potter, Biospheres & Human Microbiomes...oh my!

Question: What do you do when you have a thousand words to cover a subject on which dozens of books have already been written?

Our answer: You lean more heavily on a blog, where you can offer additional information and references to some great resources!

If these articles intrigue you or leave you wanting more, that's good!  Visit our blog!  Find out more details, discover some terrific resources, read some breaking news, and learn about upcoming events.  Our blog also makes it easier to share information with the larger community. E-mail copies of articles to family and friends or link to us on Facebook.  Tell us what you think, share your favorite resources, and bring your voice to the conversation.

Speaking of upcoming events, there's a fascinating documentary on this subject that will be coming to Vashon Island soon!  Stanford graduate student, Laura Green spent several months interviewing Vashon residents about how we manage pertussis.  The film, Everybody's Business, will be shown at the Vashon Theater @ 1:30pm on Sunday, June 2nd.  

Let's travel back in time.  Do you remember Peter Rabbit?  Or Jemima Puddleduck?  These lovely, affable characters - which have entertained and instructed generations of children - were born from the imagination of a very astute naturalist and scientist, Beatrix Potter.  She was also one of the first to observe and prove the existence of mutual symbiosis through detailed and painstaking observations of lichen.  Unfortunately, most European scientists of the 1890‘s categorically rejected the idea of mutual symbiosis which they saw to be in direct violation of the natural law of competition.  Much to the dismay of our observant and shy Miss Potter, she was publicly scoffed at, privately snubbed, and utterly dismissed as a foolish woman who hadn’t the faintest concept of how the natural world worked.  She was also right.  Her detractors did eventually get over their arrogance and held a meeting in her honor....100 years later.  Miss Potter's experience (and many similar historical stories) raise the question “What do we today accept as obvious truth, which our grandchildren will know to be patently false?”  Please visit our blog for more about Beatrix Potter’s story!

But what is mutual symbiosis anyway?  The dictionary defines it as “A close, prolonged association between two or more different organisms of different species that may, but does not necessarily, benefit each member.”  Parasites have been widely acknowledged for ages.  However, the idea of mutually beneficial relationships (also called mutual symbiosis or mutualism) between different organisms is relatively new.  In the early twentieth century, the idea of mutualism was considered impossible.  As the evidence mounted, it was acknowledged that mutualism did occur, but it was still considered very rare.  However, current research indicates that nearly all species exist in some form of mutual symbiosis.  Including us!

Did you know that you are only about 10% human?  Admittedly, the microbe cells are a lot smaller than the human cells so they only add up to 1-3% of our total mass.  But if you're counting cells, microbes that live in and on the body of a healthy adult human being are estimated to outnumber the human cells by about ten to one.  It's an odd thought isn't it?  Makes you feel a bit like a coral reef or a rainforest.  This population of microbes is called the human microbiome.  Until recently, the study of our human microbiome was limited to what would grow in a petri dish....and most microbes just won't grow outside their home habitat.  Due to recent technological advances in genetic sequencing, we are finally beginning to get a glimpse of the amazing ecosystems that  If you are interested in the details of this project, please visit our blog for more information and links to the Human Microbiome Project website.

There are two ways in which knowing the past can help us understand our present.  First, our present has been created by the combined events of the past.  Second, human nature is fairly constant and people respond in consistent ways to similar stressors regardless of what century they are living in.  Miss Potter’s case gives us an excellent example of how the human tendency toward over-confidence can lead to closed minds.
When it comes to the Human Microbiome Project, we can again learn from history.  Hundreds of years ago, people were completely unconcerned about altering ecosystems and transporting living things all over the planet.  Only after the damage was done did we come to understand the fragility of these “macro” ecosystems.  As we face the unintended consequences of our actions, questions arise about the impact we have on our microbiomes every day.  

Hopefully, as the Human Microbiome Project proceeds we will not repeat the errors of the scientific elites of Miss Potter’s day.  Instead, let us stand ready with open minds and an eagerness to expand our understanding of our body’s microbiome.  Let us focus on humility, so that we can inculcate new and unexpected discoveries into our existing world view.  

This we must do, if we hope to evolve, grow, and improve our approach to health.  This we must especially do, if new discoveries contradict any currently held (and deeply trusted) health strategies such as the War on Germs.

Closed minds did not make Miss Potter’s research any less true.  We cannot deny something into being wrong.  Due diligence and skepticism is necessary yet we need to guard against being overly attached to current paradigms.  Such attachment can interfere with our ability to accept new, vitally important, information and slow the advancement of science.  

Talking About Public & Private Health - Vaccines and Beyond” is an ongoing series written by two close friends with a passion for improving community cohesion and building respectful relationships in a diverse world.  This article was co-created by Karen Crisalli Winter and March Twisdale.  BLOG:  Email:

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Welcome to the conversation. Knowledge changes. People respond best when this truism is kept in mind. In community, March & Karen