Sunday, May 24, 2015

Microbiome Verschränkung

"The ability of gut microbiota to bidirectionally communicate with the brain, known as the gut–brain axis, in the modulation of human health is at the forefront of current research.

  In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger wrote a letter to Albert Einstein in which he used the word verschränkung (translated by himself as entanglement) "to describe the correlations between two particles that interact and then separate, as in the EPR experiment."

In the Einstein-Podalsky-Rosen experiment it appeared that one particle of an entangled pair "knows" what action has been performed on or by the other, and with what outcome, even though there is no known means, or time, for such information to have been communicated. Schrodinger later wrote, "I would not call [entanglement] one but rather the characteristic trait of quantum mechanics, the one that enforces its entire departure from classical lines of thought."

Debaters of the likelihood of Near Term Human Extinction (NTHE) are less perfectly aligned than an EPR pair. Even those that subscribe to the theory are divided as to both the date and the precipitating cause. 

Near-term civilizational collapse, on the other hand, is a bit easier to predict because (a) all civilizations collapse eventually, (b) this new, wholly global one exhibits a perfect storm of fatal design errors and (c) the empirical measure of net energy per capita – with human civilization viewed as a rudimentary heat engine that hit its zenith some years ago (estimates of date vary) and is now in steepening decline (although the International Energy Agency or President's Council of Economic Advisors would disagree).

Humans are considered to be pretty resilient and adaptive. We have been through several evolutionary bottlenecks already, to prove the point.

Granted, luck plays a role. If the few thousand survivors of the evolutionary bottleneck now revealed by mDNA studies to have occurred 70,000-80,000 years ago had all been clustered in one location - say Cupertino, California - and a Chicxulub-scale meteor had chosen to strike there and then, well sayonara. Silicon Valley would never have had a garage to build in.

But we are not alone. We are not even our own DNA. That body we blithely call human is actually a community of mostly convivial organisms, some autonomous, some not, that cohabit these complex, highly-evolved, organic structures and are responsible for all the vital functions that allow us to live. Indeed, "highly evolved" by itself means that cooperative arrangements between the many life forms that are in us and out, producing our food, oxygen, rainfall and climate, had enough time to become exceedingly complex and antifragile in their interactions. It is their tangled web that is largely responsible for this mild Holocene Epoch we have been enjoying, not just Milanković cycles

If complexity is a precursor to climax in ecosystems, disturbance, and restart, the same may be true of the human ecosystem, and so our highly complex human biology argues, after a Tainterian fashion, for NTHE. However, such a jaundiced view begs the question of how much complexity is too much, and how much provides biological stability, or antifragility, of a kind.

Ugo Bardi writes:
Much depends on what the after-crash climate will be. After the great warming "pulse" generated by fossil carbon burning, the Earth will stay very warm for a long period - at least some thousands of years. Gradually, it will cool down as the atmospheric carbon dioxide created by the industrial revolution will be gradually - very gradually - re-absorbed into the Earth's crust. It may well take a hundred thousand years to return to the pre-industrial CO2 concentrations. Only at that point we may see again the climate conditions which were typical of an Earth unperturbed by human activities; perhaps with the series of ice ages that characterized the "Pleistocene," the epoch preceded the more stable Holocene - in which we are still living.

Assuming Bardi's postulate is correct, or more precisely, that of David Archer, whom Bardi references, that the mean lifetime of fossil CO2 (not all GHGs) is about 30–35 kyr then it may well take 100,000 years for Earth's atmosphere to recover from Homo petroleo. Unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, one cannot rely on that prediction because of the possibility of the clathrate gun that could transform Earth's atmosphere to something more resembling Venus, shrouded in methane clouds. We wept at that prospect in our 1990 book, Climate in Crisis. 

Productivity of the U.S. health care
system, 1930-1982 (Tainter 1988)
Even assuming Homo post-petroleo could adapt to blistering hot surface temperatures for 100,000 years, perhaps on islands moderated by the ocean currents or at the poles, could our species then adapt to a Venus-like world? Chances diminish by degrees. The problem, as Tom Goreau has eloquently stated it, is that IPCC reports go out merely a century, while the emissions being accumulated will be around for millennia, and full cessation of fossil fuel burning will not arrest their delayed effects, although healthy soil microbe communities, promoted by regrarian farming and biochar, perhaps could.

Microbes, which are morphologically quite simple, can be remarkably more adaptive than humans to extreme conditions. On April 20, 1967, NASA's unmanned probe Surveyor 3 landed at the Mare Cognitum on a Lunar reconnoitering mission. Samples of soil from the crater where it landed were excavated with its robotic scoop and television pictures sent back to the Earth until May 3, when it shut down for a lunar night and unfortunately caught cold and died, unable to be reawakened when morning dawned, 14 days later.

The camera was retrieved by Apollo 12 astronauts three years later and returned to Earth. Opened in a clean room and sampled, the camera was discovered to still have live earthly microbes hiding in the foam crevices of its housing. These resilient microbes apparently had evaded sterilization procedures prior to Surveyor's launch. 

Some years later studies suggested that the camera had been contaminated by the Apollo astronauts, or in the sampling procedure, but these claims do not stand up to the original scrutiny provided by Lt. Colonel Fred Mitchell. In his careful study, Mitchell observed that there was a significant delay before the sampled culture began growing. This is consistent with the sampled bacteria as dormant spores, but would not be the case if the sampled culture was the result of fresh contamination. In addition, according to Mitchell, the microbes clung exclusively to the foam during culturing, which would not have happened had there been contamination. Furthermore, Mitchell suggested, if fresh contamination had occurred, millions of individual bacteria and "a representation of the entire microbial population would be expected"; instead, only a few individual bacteria were discovered and only from a single species. (Mitchell, F. J., & Ellis, W. L., "Surveyor III: Bacterium isolated from lunar retrieved TV camera," in A.A. Levinson (ed.). Proceedings of the second lunar science conference. MIT press, Cambridge, 1971).

To recap: one species of terrestrial microbes, the common bacterium Streptococcus mitis, when suddenly confronted with the nearly absolute cold of space, adapted, went dormant, and survived, not for a 14-day night, but for years.

Diminishing returns to increasing
complexity (Tainter 1988)
This historical anecdote makes a pretty good case for the proposition that no matter what we humans do to the climate of Earth, some life forms will survive. How long it takes these life forms to again evolve a community of something resembling human is anyone's guess.

Bardi continues:
A lot of things happened to humans during the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers and pastoralists. We lost a good 3-4% of the cranial capacity, many of us became able to digest milk, we developed resistance to many diseases and the capability to live on a diet that was very different and much poorer than that of hunters and gatherers. These changes were genetic, resulting from the need of adapting to a different lifestyle and to a more complex society.

True these changes are genetic, but that may miss half the story. The changes also reflect the evolution of our microbiome. Our gut bacteria, which can evolve more quickly than generalized human physiology, are in much greater control of most bodily functions than is often assumed.

According to a new review in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, "Psychobiotics and the gut–brain axis: in the pursuit of happiness" by Linghong Zhou and Jane Foster from McMaster University in Canada (Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2015; 11: 715–723, doi: 10.2147/NDT.S61997):
"The human intestine houses an astounding number and species of microorganisms, estimated at more than 1014 gut microbiota and composed of over a thousand species. An individual’s profile of microbiota is continually influenced by a variety of factors including but not limited to genetics, age, sex, diet, and lifestyle. Although each person’s microbial profile is distinct, the relative abundance and distribution of bacterial species is similar among healthy individuals, aiding in the maintenance of one’s overall health. Consequently, the ability of gut microbiota to bidirectionally communicate with the brain, known as the gut–brain axis, in the modulation of human health is at the forefront of current research.
Photo credit: CSIRO.
These cryptophytes have the
capacity to choose between
quantum coherence and decoherence
"Bidirectional communication via the vagus nerve, a component of the parasympathetic nervous system, is a well-established pathway for gut-brain signaling and, in recent years, has emerged as an important microbiota-to-brain communication pathway.

"The ENS [enteric nervous system], sometimes referred to as "the second brain" comprises intrinsic primary afferent neurons, motor neurons, and glial cells contained within the myenteric plexus and the submucosal plexus that extends along the entire length of the gut."

Zhou and Foster discovered that what you thought was your thinking may actually have originated in the hive communication going on in your gut amongst a billion single-celled organisms. How else do you explain how our biocomputer experiences 70,000 thoughts per day on roughly 24 Watts of power?

A century ago, Russian embryologist Elie Metchnikoff surmised that a healthy colonic microbial community could help combat senility. Now we are learning that the gut-brain axis - the two direction communication between the gut microbiota and the brain - affects not only health and immune response, weight management, allergies, tooth decay, cholesterol, arthritis, longevity,  but also brain function, emotional behavior and instinctive reflexes.

Gut bacterial imbalances have been linked to autism, depression, and eating disorders, as for instance, when genetically modified crops designed to be RoundUp-Ready through the glyphosate mechanism of destroying soil microbes that feed weeds at their roots are ingested by humans and make mayhem of human intestinal microfauna communities.

We don't yet entirely know how bacteria communicate, much less how they communicate with our brains or what effect that has, whether it occurs by physical linkages or through faster-than-light quantum phenomena, but we have to acknowledge the entanglement.

Bardi concludes:
"Is the future of humans a beehive? We can't say, but it looks more and more likely that some old ways of seeing the future are now wholly obsolete. Likely, our descendants will have no flying cars; no spaceships, no robot butlers bringing the martinis to them as they relax on the pool's edge. But the powers of a human hive could still be impressive even without the gadgetry of our times. Maybe the 'super-intelligence' that some see as developing in our computers could actually appear in an eusocial human organization (this is one of the themes of Frank Herbert's novel Hellstrom's Hive).

"Will these super-intelligent entities avoid the mistakes that we have done? We can't say; of course, it is a future that none of us will ever see. But it is a fascinating future and the interest in the future is part of the fact of being human. Perhaps, our hive descendants will think in the same way."

We can feel a little more assured that even though we humans evolve very slowly and face monumental, existential challenges from our pollution profligacy, the wee beasties that co-evolved in our guts adapt much faster to challenges and may yet decide we are worth hanging onto, assuming they did not engineer our planned obsolescence to begin with. 

Evolution may not be the only thing microbes are fast at. Like Gaia, they exhibit a kind of quantum intelligence, with multiple states of knowledge simultaneously appearing, and no apparent time or means to communicate. We, who treasure our autonomous egos, are fortunate to exist in community with a verschränkung hive mentality.

Fortunately, we clever apes have also hedged our bets by delaying new spacecraft sterilization protocols until after we sent unclean probes to Mars. If our hive community did not exist on Mars before (and wasn't that the discovery mission of the probes?) chances are very good that it does now.



Jan Lundberg said...

Brilliant piece, I thank you and also thank you on behalf of the multitudes that should but probably won't read it. I should ask the source who wrote this, but since you reproduced it, maybe you can answer my question regarding "An individual’s profile of microbiota is continually influenced by a variety of factors including but not limited to genetics, age, sex, diet, and lifestyle." -- How much sex?

Ian Graham said...

Albert I look forward to your posts several times a week, peeking in to see if a new essay is up on the ether. Thoroughly readable, persuasive and provokable.

Ian Graham
Old 99 Farm
Dundas ON




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