Monday, January 11, 2021

Holobiont Science: Sometimes a Little Vague, but Always Interesting


Holobiont science is sometimes a little vague, but always interesting. Here is an example.In this paper,, Rozsa and Apari argue that head lice in humans is a useful symbiont because it generates an immune response that helps protect humans from body lice, which can be dangerous as vector for harmful bacteria. (the photo above is from the paper)
It is an interesting story where you learn that there are at least two types of lice living with humans. And you learn that apes have only one kind, probably because they are uniformly hairy. Rozsa and Apari go on suggesting that the "touching heads" human habit has the specific purpose of diffusing health lice in such a way to spread the immunity to body lice. Apes, they say, don't touch each other's heads because they don't have such a need. 
Which is, as I said, very interesting, but is it true? Honestly, it gives you the idea that the authors are piling up one hypothesis after the other, none of them being really supported by data. For instance, in the places where I live, there is no habit of touching heads as a form of salutation or an expression of friendship. Then, are we sure that apes touch heads less frequently than humans do? I don't think we have solid statistics on that point. Besides, why are body lice dangerous, but not head lice? One more mystery of holobionts! 
But it is nevertheless a nice idea that adds a little more to the complexity of the idea of holobionts. And the picture that illustrates the paper (in lieu of non-existing data) is truly charming. Two distinguished professors exchanging lice. Wonderful!

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Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)