Human Beings as Superorganisms
Few people understand that humans are basically superorganisms. Indeed, we all know there are living beings inside our bodies — gut microbiota and viruses, among others. These microorganisms come and go and their concentrations and presence vary over time.
Firstly, what do we mean by “superorganisms”? Well, it’s all a complex structure, the sum of all the tiny particles that comprise it.
Continue reading for an extensive explanation!
What are superorganisms?
The word superorganism is used in biology and ecology to summarize a way of looking at the nature of society. It’s usually applied to animal-generated structures, such as those of some eusocial insects.
For example, an anthill is an entity in itself because it has some elements of its own, such as:
- A common regulated temperature
- The tunnels and generated structures form a skeleton
- An analogous to a central nervous system: every signal sent by the ants
In this case, the living beings that inhabit the anthill and the physical space they occupy form a superorganism. As you can see, this term is a bit fuzzy but well understood through some examples taken directly 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?
We’ll draw on a study published in the journal Medical Hypotheses to address this complex idea. This review contains several essential ideas for understanding the various components of the earth:
- Firstly, bacteria account for more than 50% of the total biomass of the planet.
- In turn, humans hardly make up 0.1 %.
Does it make you dizzy to imagine all of the bacteria spread around the globe to generate so much matter? Well, the data is even more incredible when you quantify the presence of microorganisms in your own body:
- According to a BBC interview with Ed Yong, author of the book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, we have around 39 million bacteria stored in our body (about two to four pounds of our total body weight).
- Our microbial populations, both internal and external, total 10 times more cells than those that make up our body system.
These figures are impressive, to say the least. Let’s take a look at the importance of bacteria with a case study below.
Bacteria and the gastrointestinal system
The gut perfectly illustrates the clearest example of the fact that humans are superorganisms containing billions of bacteria doing all kinds of tasks.
The human small intestine is the most populated microbial ecosystem. In fact, it holds most of the bacteria present in the entire body. Thus, our gastrointestinal system is a virtual organ seldom held back by its own physiological limits:
- Gut bacteria allow for more effective food assimilation as they maximize the energy we get from food.
- They can synthesize essential vitamins we couldn’t generate on our own.
- Also, they degrade complex polysaccharides derived from plants.
- This idea alone makes us realize we’re the sum of the living things that live inside us; at least in part (Something as basic as food, as we know it today, wouldn’t be possible without our microbial populations.)
Superorganisms: A matter of genes
As you can see, we human beings don’t only contain our own individual genome inherited from our parents. The DNA of each of the microorganisms that coexist with us is also a big part of us. This statement gives rise to the challenge proposed by a recent branch of science called metagenomics.
This discipline is responsible for identifying, understanding, and genetically sequencing the bacteria that inhabit our bodies and allow us to perform such important functions. Therefore, it’s essential to obtain information about these living beings to better understand who we are.
Finally, the human being could be a superorganism because we’re the sum of our physical structures and identity. Also, we have to keep in mind that life as we know it wouldn’t be possible without the microbial populations that inhabit us.