Jon Turney is a UK-based science writer and author. His articles and reviews have appeared in Times Higher Education, The Guardian, New Scientist, Green Futures and elsewhere. From 1993-2003 he taught at the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College, London. His books include Frankenstein’s Footsteps (1998), which won the BMA Award for popular medical book of the year, Lovelock and Gaia(2005) and The Rough Guide to the Future (2010), which was shortlisted for the Royal Society’s science book prize. We spoke to him about his book ‘I, Superorganism’ and the potential for getting high off microbes.
How would you define a ‘superorganism’?
In this case, it means that a whole person is a coalition of a collective of human cells with other, equally numerous, collectives, gathered in several differently located ecosystems with shifting populations. All interacting with the human cellular community.
You’ve written books on Frankenstein, heart health and the future – why tackle the microbiome?
Mainly because I was fascinated by the outpouring of findings about microbial complexity affecting other multicellular organisms that emerged when the tools of post-genomic biology spread more widely through the labs. I wanted to educate myself about what was being found, and assess its significance and think about what sense others might make of it, and what the social impact might be as the biology became clearer.
What surprised you when researching the book?
The main thing is the big picture and how it lay obscured for so long – almost hidden in plain sight. We’ve known these microbes were there for hundreds of years, but the variety, complexity and importance of microbiomes seems to have passed largely unnoticed.
My copy of Theodore Rosebury’s excellent Life on Man has been with me since 1976. When I look at it again, I find that it is almost all history and anthropology, and some psychiatry. The actual microbiology occupies a couple of chapters that barely exceed 20 pages. And Rosebury owned the subject. We’ve come a long way since then.
Other specific things that make me think hard are the ideas developed recently, especially by Professor Margaret McFall-Ngai, about the way our highly adaptive immune system may have evolved to allow co-existence with a complex microbiome, and the way that the composition of breast milk is regulated to feed the infant microbiome as well as the infant.
You raise a healthy, hefty eyebrow at much of the (commercial) claims made about the microbiome, what area do you suspect will deliver results?
My guess is there’ll be fortunes made at some point from cosmetic applications – anti-acne, anti-dandruff, perhaps breath freshening and tooth-preservation by encouraging the right biofilm.
You contemplate the possibility of ‘a legal prebiotic and a microbe that metabolizes it into something more pharmacologically interesting’ – is this a future we’re likely to see in this lifetime?
That depends on how enterprising bio-hackers and people planning to stay one step ahead of drug-regulators prove to be. If they pick up the idea, I’m sure they’ll be able to research ways it might work. As we in the UK have a Government that, rather ludicrously, has now banned everything psychoactive, perhaps they’ll have a new incentive to offer substances that are a step away from that and need microbial finishing!
Recently, the BMJ had a shift in policy re: finishing a course of antibiotics. Do you agree with this stance and are we (the public) able to juggle the subtleties of such decisions?
Sure, eventually. But this does seem a major shift from what one previously understood (that failing to finish a course might promote the spread of resistance, though now I think of it, I’m not sure I ever understood why, beyond some vague connection with “whatever does not kill me makes me stronger” applied to microbes).
So, it’ll take a while and plenty of repeats of the message for it to filter through and affect habits of prescribing and compliance.
I, Superorganism feels contemporary, yet a work in progress as we’re still learning so much. Is there any research you’ve come across since publication that’s either changed or progressed your stance on the microbiome?
I thought it would get out of date quite fast! That’s the hazard of publishing a book on a hot topic. Thankfully that hasn’t happened as quickly as I feared. Lots of results contradict previous studies, so large claims remain compromised and we see how much we don’t yet understand. I’m not following the work in so much detail now, but the paper that seemed most startling to me came out early last year and showed that microRNAs from mouse and human gut epithelial cells are normal components of faeces, and that they enter bacteria – where they can regulate bacterial gene expression.
That is, co-evolution has allowed us to reach into microbial cells and alter how they operate when they are inside us. It’s one example of the important idea that the microbiome doesn’t just show up, but the population that gets established is actively shaped by the host. And, for me, it was a glimpse of a whole new layer of hitherto unsuspected interaction, unsuspected partly because microRNAs are a pretty evanescent species and were themselves only discovered relatively recently. I don’t know what impact this work has had on the field, but it seemed important to me.
You spoke about communicating the microbiome at the FEMS Microbiology Congress 2017 – what tips would you give to those starting out or anticipating a career in science communication?
It’s fun and (sometimes) useful, so go for it. Be prepared to listen (receive as well as transmit), especially listen to the people you want to get the benefit. Their questions will be more important to them than yours. Imagine how things may look to them, or what mental models they may be using to understand what’s going on (consciously or not). My favourite slogan is due to the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, and holds that you can explain anything to anyone, at some level, if you take the trouble to formulate what he calls “a courteous explanation”. That’s the kind of courtesy he had in mind.
As both a scientist and a writer, do you have confidence that our Government and media do enough to promote science, reason and evidence?
That’s a hard one these days. I’m one of those now trying to break the lifetime habit of having easy opinions about such things because the Brexit vote and Trump’s ascendancy have taught me that, really, I understand hardly anything. Government is in a difficult position promoting reason (though will always tend to claim it is doing so) as so few people credit what Government representatives say. The media are a mosaic, with good and frighteningly bad examples on either side of this question. And social media? We’re all trying to figure that out. The losses and gains are complex and still unfolding.
Have you been persuaded by evidence, circumstantial or otherwise to take a probiotic?
Not yet. And the enthusiasm for fermented foods is interesting, but leaves me cold – and scientifically unconvinced. But then I have always felt healthy so far, so I lack incentive to experiment. I do think prebiotics are worth thinking about, but that mainly leads to adherence to the guidelines for a healthy diet that we all knew well before the current explosion of microbiome science happened.
This interview was first published in Microbiologist
I, Superorganism: Learning to Love Your Inner Ecosystem
by Jon Turney
ISBN 9781848318229 and 8236 (e-book)