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Mark O. Martin

Nice comments from all! My first attempt to reply was eaten with gusto by my web browser crashing. So here I go again:

1. First, this entire discussion reminds me of the following:

“So naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ‘em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.”
-Jonathan Swift (“Poetry: A Rhapsody”).

2. Dr. Worthen, I have known Jorg Graf for a number of years, and his passion for leech-microbial associations (and his puckish sense of humor) always lead me to following this topic. He gave a superb seminar at the symbiosis symposium, for example.

3. Apologies for misunderstanding qetzal’s comment. I believe that a “Russian Nesting Dolls” paradigm for thinking about microbial interactions (in some cases, “intra-action”?) is useful and accurate. Merry’s topic is particularly instructive (I came to that line of thinking while considering “R-bodies” and the “kappa” phenotype in the protist Paramecium---look at how much more is known nowadays!).

We tend to think in reductionist terms, looking at simple systems and associations to gain an intellectual foothold on a problem. And there has been much benefit from that approach.

But looking, for example, at gut microbiota creates a different kettle of metaphorical fish, with over a thousand phylotypes to consider. There are many classes of “microbial associate” in that case, clearly, including: residents that use the location as a surface and little more, co-ops that contribute to upkeep or defense, transients that are just passing through (!), and “squatters” that “set up shop” in a disturbed or damaged location, to name a few.

Some of the associations may turn out to be trivial to understand, and others rivaling systems biology style complexity.

This makes me think, in turn, of “group activities” among microbes where “cheating” arises (say, among myxobacters, as studied by Greg Velicer and others). Surely such “cheating” will occur among the many denizens of a complex microbiota…ranging from (again) trivial examples to the very subtle.

I am then reminded of this great quote:
“All organisms are nothing but a bag of other organisms walking around.”
-Thomas Miller (UC Riverside).

Some of those organisms cooperate. Others fight. Still others are oblivious to one another. In a way, we are all ecospheres, writ moderately large. And enormous---whole worlds!--- to the microbes around us!

Thanks for the nice comments.

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