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The human body as a superorganism

The human body as a superorganism

We all know that human beings contain living beings inside their body. Intestinal microbiota or specific viruses, among others, are examples of microorganisms that come and go, varying their concentrations and their presence in us over time. Even so, what few understand is that man could be classified as a superorganism.

But what do we mean when we talk about a superorganism? It is a complex structure, the sum of all the tiny particles that make it up. Let's understand it better below.

What is a superorganism?

The word superorganism is used in biology and ecology to summarize a way of viewing the nature of society. It is normally applied to structures generated by animals, such as those of some insects.

For example, an anthill can be considered an entity in itself, since it has some of its own elements such as the following:

  • A commonly regulated temperature.
  • Skeleton: tunnels and generated structures.
  • An analogue to a central nervous system: each of the signals sent by the ants.

In this case, the living beings that inhabit the anthill and the physical space they occupy would form the superorganism in question. This term may be diffuse, but it is well understood with examples from nature. Even so, things get complicated when we try to apply the definition to human beings.

Are we the sum of all our parts?

To address this complex idea we are going to base ourselves on a study published in the journal Medical Hypotheses. This review article includes various essential ideas to understand the different components of the earth:

  • Bacteria make up more than 50% of the planet's total biomass.
  • Human beings hardly make up 0.1%.

It's dizzying to imagine the number of bacteria that must be spread across the globe to generate so much matter, right? Well, the data becomes more incredible when we quantify the presence of microorganisms in the human body:

  • According to a BBC interview with Ed Yong, the author of the book "I Contain Multitudes", we have around 39 million bacteria stored in our body. This would be equivalent to one or two kilos of our total weight.
  • The microbial populations that accompany us, both internal and external, add up to 10 times more cells than those that make up our own body system.
  • These figures are, to say the least, impressive, but let's see the importance of bacteria with a specific case below.

Bacteria and our gastrointestinal system

  • The clearest example that human beings are a superorganism made up of billions of bacteria that do different jobs is perfectly seen if we look at the intestine.
  • The human small intestine is considered the most populated microbial ecosystem. It adds more total bacteria than those present in the entire rest of our body. This makes our gastrointestinal system a virtual organ that is not held back by its own physiological limits:
  • Intestinal bacteria allow for more effective food assimilation since they maximize the energy we obtain from them.
  • They are capable of synthesizing essential vitamins that we could not generate on our own.
  • They degrade complex plant-derived polysaccharides.
  • This idea in itself makes us realize that we are, in part, the sum of the living beings that live within us. Something as basic as the diet we know today would not be possible without our microbial populations.

Superorganism: a matter of genes

  • Thus, the human being does not only contain his own genome inherited from his parents. The DNA of each of the microorganisms that live with us is also part of us. Under this statement the challenge proposed by a recent branch of science called metagenomics is generated.
  • This discipline is responsible for identifying, understanding and genetically sequencing the bacteria that live in our body and allow us to perform such important functions. It is essential to obtain information about these living beings that accompany us to understand ourselves.
  • Thus, as we have seen, the human being could be considered a superorganism. We are the sum of our physical structures and identity, but we also have to keep in mind that without the microbial populations that inhabit us, life as we know it would not be possible.

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