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Feast Your Eyes: Photos of the Microbes That Inhabit Your Gut

A look at the fibers, forests, and spores of our microbial diet, and its relationship to bio-couture, Latin paintbrushes, and gut flora.

Synthetic biologist Christine Agapakis has posted a fun set of photos of food microbes taken by scanning electron microscope. The image above shows kombucha, a type of tea that is fermented by a combination of yeasts and bacteria, which has attracted a growing band of followers convinced of its miraculous health-giving powers.

As Agapakis writes, kombucha "looks incredible under the microscope, where you can see the dense mesh of cellulose fibers that the microbes produce. These fibers form a 'raft' on top of the tea that can be dried and pressed into sturdy sheets, like those used to make BioCouture."

The image above shows a spray of Penicillium, the fungus that creates the characteristic blue-gray molding on St. Maure (and other blue) cheese. Look at its shape: Agapakis explains that Penicillium takes its name from the Latin word for paintbrush, peniculus.

According to fermentation guru Sandor Katz, "Eating bacteria is one of life's greatest pleasures." In a recent profile of Katz in the New Yorker, reporter Burkhard Bilger writes:

Beer, wine, cheese, bread, cured meats, coffee, chocolate: our best-loved foods are almost all fermented. They start out bitter, bland, cloying, or indigestible and are remade by microbes into something magnificent.

What's even more interesting is that all these microbes in our foods are then digested by the more than 500 different species of bacteria living in our guts, which outnumber the human cells in our bodies by 10 to 1. These bacteria-to-bacteria interactions metabolize nutrients, regulate fat storage, and even train the developing immune system, forming their own ecosystem that blurs the boundary of the individual body. Indeed, as Lynn Margulis, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, tells Bilger:

There is no such thing as an individual. What we see as animals are partly just integrated sets of bacteria.

Photos via Oscillator.

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