National Geographic

Microbes as Poisoners and Puppet Masters

I’ve been on something of a microbial jag recently. For my past two columns for the New York Times I’ve explored the creepy biochemical sophistication of bacteria.

First, I took a look at the outbreak of toxic bacteria that shut down Toledo’s water supply a couple weeks ago. A lot of people don’t realize it, but those microbes have been spewing out these toxins for about three billion years–for reasons that scientists are still trying to figure out.

Then I wrote about the chemicals that our own microbiome releases, and the ways they can affect our behavior. Some scientists don’t think those changes are just random side effects. Instead, our microbes may be trying to manipulate us for their own benefit, eating certain foods or getting close to other people (also known as hosts).

Check them out!

There are 4 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Matthew Grossman
    August 15, 2014

    Pretty unbelievable you would have written such sensationalist nonsense. Finally, after decades of associating microbes only with disease and death, with regard to their interaction to the human body, we have begun to realize how vitally important our microbiome is to our health. And you come out with this completely anthropocentric non-scientific distortion “Instead, our microbes may be trying to manipulate us for their own benefit”. Microbes aren’t trying to do anything that can be viewed in the light of human Machiavellian motivations. Are you trying to be the Stephen King of science? We don’t need a Stephen King of science; Stephen King is a great fiction writer, not a great writer of science. Unfortunately, comments like these can do great damage to real science. Many people have received little in the way of science education and rely on scientists to accurately explain what they know of scientific topics. This kind of article once again posits our microbiome as villains; something we know scientifically is not reality. Our relationship with our microbiome has evolved over 10s of millions of years, and we have recently become to realize how important this mutualistic relationship is. Obviously, one affects the other; the question is why and how. I suggest sticking to science, which I believe is your strength, not fiction.

    MJG PhD, Microbiology

    [CZ: I have three points in response to your comment:

    1. Apparently you missed the introduction to my article, where I stated clearly that the microbiome is important to our health and linked to a long article I wrote for the Times on that topic.

    2. You are wrong to say organisms can't manipulate other organisms. Again, if you follow the links in my article, you can read another long article I wrote for the Times on manipulative parasites--based on a special issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology dedicated to the topic. The question I explore in this new article is whether some commensal microbes have a similar influence on our behavior.

    3. Finally, you ignore the fact that I was reporting on a hypothesis presented by three scientists in a scientific journal, which I then ran by several experts on the microbiome--who generally agreed that this was a compelling hypothesis worthy of further investigation. That is what we call journalism.]

  2. Kangze Feng
    August 20, 2014

    It seems that nytimes.com is banned in China, so I can’t open the links. Are there other links to the articles?

    [CZ: I keep an archive of my work here. I don't know how the Chinese government feels about it!]

  3. R A
    August 30, 2014

    I wonder if it would be possible to quantify how extreme the selective pressure would be for bacteria to manipulate mammalian behavior… perhaps by exposing bacteria free animals to known craving manipulating chemicals.

  4. Daniel Bastian
    September 10, 2014

    Matthew Grossman:

    For someone who claims to care so dearly about scientific integrity, could your comment be any more divorced from reality? There is a difference between distorting the science and using common language to convey scientific concepts to lay people. A thin line, perhaps, but if there’s someone who is better at navigating this boundary than Carl Zimmer, I haven’t found them. As always, he is reporting on *actual* studies, and in this case there is preliminary evidence that microbes can indeed “manipulate” its hosts into consuming nutrients that will allow it to thrive. The researchers even present a mechanism for it (i.e., nerve impulses). Also, you obviously didn’t take the time to read the linked posts because the perception of the microbiome presented is not solely of “villain” status, but as symbionts with a nuanced relationship to their hosts.

    The only sensationalism I see is your big block of text.

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