The cross-disciplinary blogosphere

As I was proofing the transcript of my conversation with Steve Burbeck about multicellular computing, I noticed that Steve had said that ten percent of the cells in our bodies are bacterial, not human. The actual complement is much more shocking: 90%, a number so surprising that it's no wonder Steve misspoke. It jumped out at me because the notion that we are human/bacterial super-organisms is in the news, thanks to an article in last week's New York Times magazine (title: Fat Factors, cover tease: Microbesity?). The article discusses how our microbial fauna may affect food metabolism. Although it doesn't make this point, by the way, there's an interesting twist here on the old nature versus nurture debate. In the case of a surrogate birth, you get genes from your biological mother (and father) but microfauna from your surrogate mother.

The blogospheric vector for the super-organism meme appears to have been Wired News, which popularized the phrase human-bacteria hybrid. Bloglines finds 46 citations of that October 2004 story, which was based on a review that appeared in the journal Nature Biotechnology. The original article, The challenges of modeling mammalian biocomplexity is online here, exquisitely rendered as HTML that preserves all figures and legends. How many times was this original article cited by the blogosphere? According to Bloglines, none.

I probably shouldn't be too surprised by that, but it does contradict a point I made in last week's conversation with Peter Suber about open access. I said that bloggers typically respect primary sources, and are scrupulous about tracking them down and citing them. Clearly that didn't happen in this case.

When I did track down and read that paper, here's what jumped out at me:

It is possible to conceive of each cell as a node with a set of metabolic pathways within the node as above, but with each node connected to other nodes and then the problem reduces to the modeling of the internodal connections.

So, IT folks and biotech folks are converging on a similar (maybe the same) problem: modeling and managing complex networks. In principle the blogosphere stands ready to enable the kinds of cross-disciplinary conversations that will move us forward. In practice I suspect that, so far anyway, it is doing so less often and less effectively than it could.

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