Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Elsa Biosphere Reserve

I'm setting up my body as a biosphere reserve.

I'm an ecosystem, a walking rainforest with ten times more microbial inhabitants than human cells.

There are 2,264 single-celled monkeys swinging from my nostril branches, and a similar number of prokaryotic tapirs feeding in the foliage behind my ears. Just under 8,000 types of microscopic bug inhabit the moist leaf litter of my teeth and tongue. Most impressive of all, I've got 33,000 species of bacterial caiman swimming the silty rivers of my digestive tract.

It isn't just me: you are a habitat too.

There's barely a tract of you that isn't awash with life forms. Even the insides of your elbows can compete with your nose as sites of special scientific interest.

In fact everyone's meat-sack is now of interest to science.

Welcome to the Human Microbiome Project, dedicated to charting the biodiversity of 18 sites on the human body. The implications for medicine are staggering. We'll no longer be able to view the body as simply ours, to be treated as one being, but as the habitat for an aggregation of bacteria, archaea, eukaryotic microbes and viruses. All of these species are natural and many play important roles in our bodily processes. It's only when they are in the wrong place or numbers that they can become the japanese knotweed of the body.

Why set up an Elsa Biosphere Reserve? Recently my personal ecosystem has been under threat from some invasive species, resulting in time off work and missing a chance to meet Neil Gaiman. This simply will not do.

Dr Lita Proctor, programme director of the Microbiome Project explains "The human genome is inherited but the human microbiome is acquired- that means it has a very important changeable, mutable property. This gives us something to work with ... If you can manipulate the microbiome you can keep a healthy microbiome healthy or re-balance an unhealthy one." (BBC)

We acquire  our microbial biome when we're babies, but this doesn't mean it can't change.

Imagine a future where doctors are the conservationists of your microbiome. They reintroduce endangered species in order to restore balance to the food chain in your body.

We're not talking yakult here, but personalised ecosystem restoration.

Back to the Elsa Biosphere Reserve. In a biosphere reserve, conservation of natural biodiversity is balanced with human economic and social development. The goal is sustainability.

The limit of the reserve will be my skin. I shall attempt to balance the conservation of my natural microbiota with the pesky task of eating, breathing and socialising- all activities that can threaten the healthy functioning of my ecosystem if not done sustainably.

Although microbiome medical treatments are sure to feature in the future of medicine, for now I just have to take some painkillers, rest, and let my microbial allies fight and repopulate my orifices.

"After their designation, biosphere reserves remain under national sovereign jurisdiction, yet they share their experience and ideas nationally, regionally and internationally" (UNESCO)

I will retain sovereign juristiction over myself, but you can be sure I'll continue to share my experiences and ideas to anyone with enough spare time to listen.

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