By: Natascha Deininger
January 25, 2017: Celebrating Robert Burns day in Salt Lake City, UT
Long-deceased national darling and poet of Scotland Robert Burns never once used the donut as a metaphor for the human body, an oversight in my opinion. After all, human bodies have been all sorts of things – seeds that grow to trees, systems that develop to machines, and cogs that make up a mighty Leviathan. The donut however possesses the particular property of being hollow: a new oval-shaped window through which to see the world, or ourselves in it, if you will. In fact, our entire alimentary tract could be made up of donuts, glued together by their pink frosting and forming a long hollow tunnel, an altogether fitting illustration of our entrails. However, this morning at Dunkin Donuts, we, the people, are busy trying to hide that we have any guts to begin with, and while most of this hiding is done subconsciously, my neighbour tucking into an early morning coffee would be alarmed were I to suddenly expel the accumulated by-products of anaerobic metabolism – that means: were I to fart. And if I were to let gas come out of both ends of the hollow donut-like tube that runs through my centre, the employees of Dunkin Donuts may even intervene to show me the door, at which point I might protest that Martin Luther himself declared: “Why is it that you doth not farteth and burpeth? Did it not wetteth your tastes?” and that I was simply expressing my appreciation for their product in the manner recommended by a shit-obsessed 16th century priest, who would probably be mistaken for the civil rights leader that shares two-thirds of this name, hence adding to the body of quotations and remarks taken out of context to sanitize MLK from having ever done anything that made someone uncomfortable. Goodness, to consider the impact of such a banal act as to pass gas, another power presumably, that many people do not know they have.
In fact, we do not know ourselves particularly well at all, as the donut illustrates. We like to think of ourselves as whole beings, moving through the world as secrete units, outraged when something invades our personal bubble, and hyperconscious of how much of ‘us’ – aka the body, is revealed. Of course, much can be made of the nature/self divide: that it is artificial to begin with, and the product of a warped sense of reality. Yet, we somehow cannot escape it – even when our monkey brains get an ‘A’ for effort, and all other sentient creatures roll their eyes at the stupidity of humans, and plants in particular would like a more rigid grading scheme. But no matter – let’s follow the donut through our inner tube. First comes our oral cavity, where a bossy muscle by the name of Glottis pushes the donut about between dentures as it soaks in saliva, and the enzyme amylase begins to break apart sugars. The tip of Glottis senses only sweet, her sides salty and sour, and only all the way at the back, just before the donut falls out of the oral cavity, is there ever bitter. Down the esophagus the donut goes, now christened bolus in the water of saliva. It’s a smooth ride, the soft muscles pushing forward with little quivers of peristaltic action. Arriving at the lower esophageal sphincter, a window opens and the bolus is propelled into a whole new world, aka the stomach, an acidic sack very good at imitating earth quakes with its folds and juices, made deep in gastric pits. The acid transforms the bolus yet again, and as it emerges through the tiny opening that is the pylorus and enters the small intestine, it is renamed chyme. The small intestine is a dense mountain range, with hill upon mountain, upon mountain, cells folding endlessly so they too might come into direct contact with the chyme, touching it for a second like the faithful a saint parading through town, and absorbing energy in magical units unsuspectingly named short-fatty-acid-chains, peptides, and glucose. Nutrients are gathered, repackaged, sent on their way, water is absorbed, a great harvest of the world’s most delicious building blocks!
All of this must be vaguely familiar to you, dear reader. But what I have left out is that along the way, there was more: tiny, microscopic forms of life often considered ‘other’ to the clean demarcated lines between alimentary tract and the outside world. Starting in the oral cavity there were Actinomyces and Treponema, spanning the aerobic and anaerobic worlds, and now, as we move to the large intestine and the mountain ranges turns to hills, Bacteroides, Clostridium, and Ruminoccocus flood the landscape, outnumbering somatic cells (i.e. body cells) 100 to 1. No one really knows how many beings are here – 300 to 500 different species, Faecalibacterium prasnitzi proudly the most populous, claiming 5% of the population. Microbes take apart fiber, proteins, and split matter that the endothelium of the intestine cannot, and we find a great many relationships built on donuts-come-bolus-come-chyme, articulated by the drive to transform the world from large, loud, cheeto-colored hollow cakes to smaller molecules to feed something else.
As I leave Dunkin Donuts to return the sugary bounty to my work, I watch people running on treadmills in a gym that decided to have large windows opening to a busy road so that self-improvement may be on full display. Farting is also not okay here, and sweating tends to be frowned upon, but people look happy trotting on machines originally designed as Victorian torture tools. A sign in the window tells me to ‘Shape Up’ and ‘Be at the Top’, while a billboard down the road reminds me to get checked, because 1 in 8 women will develop aggressive breast cancer in their lives. How often are we torn, between messages that tell us: ‘you can be anything you want’ and ‘you are your genome’. On some days I think that the past is a different country, on others that nothing has changed. On some days I believe anything is possible and the future totally unknown. On others I believe that in the midst of resurgent fascism and the climate change page disappearing from the White House website, the future is nothing but a great coming to terms with all the selfishness of (white) man, determined like the code of an unrolled gene.
The human genome is a mighty thing to imagine, with 20,000 genes to its name, powering the 37 trillion somatic cells that we consider self. Mighty numbers, but a more poetic reality emerges with the addition of the microbes in the gut: 2 million genes, and organisms that outnumber our own cells hundredfold. The border between alimentary tube and microbes is arbitrary, and I wonder what it would be like to consider ourselves landscapes – mountain ranges and acid lakes contained within, moving across the concrete, teeming with life that is so interconnected I do not know where to draw the line. That when I die, my nerve cells will die first, followed by muscle cells, and while microbial cells will live a little longer, they die too eventually, the whole mess absorbed and broken down to render life in a different form.
The Ouroboros is a snake eating its own tail, a symbol found in ancient Egyptian scrolls, on medieval alchemy books, and as a popular tattoo option with spiritually inclined hipsters. The snake recreates itself, and there is no obvious end or beginning to the tale. Some gut bacteria induce dysphoria when the chyme coming their way does not include their favourite substrates, an unhappiness that can only be alleviated by consuming the gut-desired food. Other bacteria alter Glottis’ taste receptors, hijacking our Vegas nerve to modulate the tongue’s interpretation of the world. Still other bacteria send messages to our enteric nervous system, which contains half of all of our dopamine, and the majority of our serotonin, and still others imitate hormones such a leptin and ghrelin to thus play around with feelings of satiety and hunger. Then there are gut bacteria that affect the chromatin of our brains, leading to changes in neuronal transcription and behaviour. Here we are: changes in the expression of our genome. You are your genome/your genome is ever changing. The world modulated and recreated time again in different iterations of reality, heedless to the desire that wants to create a clean line between self/other, between us/them.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons