Microbial life

The top 10 life-forms living on Lady Gaga and you

Outrageous rocker, Lady Gaga, made headlines last year with her sirloin beef outfit. But as this wonderful article from Scientific American proposes, when she cloaked herself in another species, she was just making visible what goes on every day less conspicuously.

Long before she strapped on her sirloin, her prevailing condition was contaminated. You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the bacteria out of the girl’s large intestine. But before you get holier than thou, I should point out that the condition with which Gaga is afflicted is the human condition. We are all covered in other species, gowns of life far more outrageous than a few strips of wayward meat. Here then are the 10 life-forms you (and Lady Gaga) are most likely to be wearing this spring.

Even if she takes her meat dress off, she is still covered in life. Bacteria shimmer on her lips and hips. The fungi on her feet lap up her sweat and the mites on her head, they don’t give a damn. They just bury their faces further into their one true occupation. They do so without glamour, pretense or agents, as they have for millions of years.

Lessons can be learned from the life that coats us, inside and out. We might learn tolerance of others, or at least of the others on us. We might learn to appreciate how poorly known the world still is, even the world of our own bodies. But perhaps the greatest lesson is that no matter where and how we live we remain connected to the rest of life, dressed in other species.

1. Just dance

We’ll start at the bottom. At least from a distance, feet can be lovely. They bend and twist to hold us up and move us over the world. Each foot is composed of 26 bones, every one intimately articulated with one or more others. But confronting a foot toe-on presents dirtier realities. The feet contact everything we hold our snootier noses up and out of (one feels, for the poor ants who must taste, in part, with their tarsi). Even when they are fully cloaked in socks, shoes, or – if you are Gaga – feathers, they are still a biome unto themselves. They are tougher and warmer, but also damper than most of our parts. With tens of thousands of sweat glands per inch, our feet sweat to excess. They are the poor man’s rain forest and like the rain forest, they abound in fungi. But it is not just any fungi that grows around our toes. Oh no, it is a special one. Tricophyton rubrum, the most common foot fungus, feasts on dead skin and toenails. It, or one of its close kin, is worn by many of us, perhaps most, of us. It blossoms from our flotsam. Every so often, when its garden grows too much, it becomes “athletes foot”; fungal bodies grow like the leaves of grass and as they do, the toe nails yellow and the skin cracks. But most of the time T. rubrum’s growth is moderate. It is neither friend nor foe, simply a freeloader, a wayward child left to forage where no one else will go. Wiggle your toes and, whether you are wearing flip-flops or Prada, your fungi wiggle, too.

Alongside the filaments of our fungi live bacteria. The bacteria on our feet consume the amino acid leucine found in sweat. It is these amino-acid-eaters that cause feet to stink. In eating leucine, these creatures excrete a gaseous perfume (isovaleric acid) that is instantly recognizable as it rises up from under the table. The stinking bacteria on most of our feet are Staphylococcus epidermidis, but those of us with especially stinky feet may also host another species of bacteria, Bacillus subtilis, which, despite its name, stinks with a ferocious lack of subtlety.

So far, we have scarcely begun to study the life down under in our home bound antipodes. It simply grows, mates and dies, between your toes. If you cannot afford to go to remotest Papua New Guinea to find a new species of brown bird, bend down and touch your feet. As you do, you will undoubtedly lay hold of at least a few species that no scientist anywhere in the world yet knows anything about, your own special ornament. And when you do, they will probably smell. Maybe this is what Neruda meant when he described “the lost bouquet of your body.” Maybe not.

2. Fancy pants

Move from the foot on up the legs and fungus becomes rare. Our legs are dry like a desert and so require special adaptations for habitation…..

Scientific American. Read more