Hypothetical medical question for a story
April 28, 2024 8:58 PM   Subscribe

If a person were to be instantly transported in a way that only the parts of their body that were actually them were to come through, but all the other organisms that live in/on us -- all their intestinal bacteria and eyelash mites and whatnot -- were left behind, how quickly would that kill them, what would be the symptoms, and would it be possible to save them with probiotics or a fecal bacteria transplant or something like that? Also is there a distinction that makes sense so that a virus could still ride along even when all the bacteria we depend on to survive could not? Prefer a sci-fi explanation to a magical one. Thanks!
posted by Jacqueline to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have no "Ask" answers. But such a cool question...

Do we even know what weird organisms keep us alive? Probiotic yogurt would be my first go to. Pretty sure the eyebrow mites are still around whenever you are going to.

Not being able to digest food properly would likely be the worst symptom, Or constant diarrhea and the consequences of that because of having no proper gut bacteria, (see the side effects of most oral antibiotics). So, malnutrition. Which leads to all kinds of symtoms.
posted by Windopaene at 9:08 PM on April 28

OK so you mean what happened in 2087 when people were dying of a mysterious bug and they were transported so fast they would leave all the extra parts behind? So the extra parts could be introduced back one by one via a special clean room like you do with potential allergens and that way they could identify which bug it was that was killing people? Except whoops, the mortal virus causing the issue to begin with had mutated to become identical to a human cell so it wasn't left behind and that was an issue? Meanwhile all the weird symptoms of having no gut flora were experienced simultanesously as a kind of freedom and a kind of exquisite loneliness that no one could understand? And some people made an alliance with the microbes? Yes, this could happen.
posted by lesser whistling duck at 9:27 PM on April 28 [17 favorites]

I think viruses variably enter or attach themselves to cells, co-opting their mechanisms to reproduce themselves. Whereas I think bacterial cells generally co-exist with human cells but don't enter or attach to co-opt them in the same way. So if your system has a mechanism to recognize human cell boundaries and transport the entirety of what is contained in each cell, I'd imagine at least some types of viruses would still be able to reproduce. Hope someone with actual expertise will have a better explanation!
posted by lookoutbelow at 9:53 PM on April 28 [1 favorite]

It's not directly responsive to your question, but germ-free mice — which are routinely used as a model organism in studies of the microbiome — could provide something of a starting point for thinking about what things might be like for a germ-free human.
posted by multics at 10:07 PM on April 28 [4 favorites]

I don’t have a definitive answer, but Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes is a terrific read on our tiny hitchhikers, and could get you a long way towards one. It would have all sorts of unpleasant consequences for our health.
posted by rory at 10:35 PM on April 28 [4 favorites]

lookoutbelow: I think bacterial cells generally co-exist with human cells but don't enter or attach to co-opt them in the same way
generally yes, but the division is greyed: alphaproteobacteria have a tendency to dive intra-cellular and make a living inside. αpb include Rickettsia which causes typhus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and a rattle of related diseases in humans and other mammals. Typical symptoms happen when Rickettsia invade the cells which make up blood vessels causing leakage, oedema and hypotension. Wolbachia spp have similar effects in arthropods and have been mobilised as biocontrol to nobble the insect vector for a number human diseases incl. Zika and Dengue Fever and river-blindness.
Mitochondria are probably ultra-streamlined reduced-instruction-set alphaproteobacteria which must live permanently inside cells.
As for what will kill you, absent your intestinal flora, the instructive model is C.diff = Clostridium difficile which is normally kept in check by The Competition in the gut, but goes postal when the rest of the intestinal flora is depleted. Any one of a million different bacteria could do likewise.
Nthing rory for Ed Yong but you can get a 45m Exec Summ at his 2016 Royal Institution lecture The Microbes Within Us.
posted by BobTheScientist at 10:50 PM on April 28 [5 favorites]

Wait, so BobTheScientist, you're saying that effectively Three Stooges Syndrome from the Simpsons (Mr. Burns is Indestructible) is actually what keeps all of us alive?

I am indeed, having a cow, man.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 11:02 PM on April 28 [4 favorites]

Are my mitochondria matched to my DNA or just cloned and placed in every cell? I think it's a fast death inside an hour without these energy buffers.

No biggie, we captured the data, can replay the build with looser parameters and try again. And again.

What happens when the machine captures all of the individual but also reaches out to their social networks, community support structures or their place in history?
posted by k3ninho at 12:57 AM on April 29 [1 favorite]

I came to mention (just seen that multics covered it) the animal 'research' (' ' as I see this as cruel) methodology called gnotobiosis where animals are bred and treated to have no gut flora. I know that in my region there's a lab of pigs kept like this to produce some drug.
posted by unearthed at 1:38 AM on April 29

One symptom would be sudden post-transit weight loss from the literal decreased mass. A quick search says the gut microbiota could be worth a couple of pounds alone if they take their water with them. Which I suppose also raises the question of where everything else goes.
posted by teremala at 4:25 AM on April 29 [1 favorite]

Seconding the rec for "I Contain Multitudes" (don't read it right before you do your colonoscopy prep, it will make you sad).

As for how to bring along the virus, retroviruses incorporate themselves into our own cells' nuclear DNA. Some even become endogenous retroviruses that get passed down through the germ line. I can imagine that these would slip by the filter pretty easily.
posted by mskyle at 5:48 AM on April 29

I don't think there is a clear boundary between my symbiotes and what is 'really me' -- I'm a coalition at pretty much every scale. I don't think a dna-based filter will work because even if it was keyed to my mitochondria as well as my nuclear DNA, it would leave behind my fingernails, my red blood cells, and probably (shudder) some of my bones.

There was a long-standing theory (now in disfavor, I think) that cellular cilia and flagella were symbiotes, descended from wiggly bacteria that joined forces with eukaryotes. So if you're doing this transport via monkey's paw there are a LOT of horrifying ironic angles the paw can use to murder you -- you might not even get all of your individual cells.
posted by eraserbones at 6:07 AM on April 29 [1 favorite]

I don't think it's necessarily lethal, even if untreated, if there are other intact humans around.
We have a pretty good parallel: human infants. In utero they are mostly sterile inside, and outside is just what's in the amniotic fluid, which is very limited compared to the world. Establishing their microbiome is one of the reasons skin-to-skin contact is beneficial. Gut flora establishes via oral cavity flora. See e.g. here for some research on this. It takes years for your gut flora system to fully establish, but you don't die (usually) while that's happening.

Extensive bacterial colonization of newborns begins at birth (Dominguez-Bello et al., 2010). The gastrointestinal microbiome undergoes rapid changes through the first year of life and matures to adult status around 3–5 years of age

The stuff on the outside is important but mostly for your skin health. As soon as you show up after teleporting, your body will begin to be recolonized, and an arc back to normalcy begin. Now, it may not ever return exactly to how it was, but that's ok. Your external microflora is potentially very different from mine, but we both get by just fine. It's not necessary to have one exact community, but rather the net function that's important. You could help the process along by having skin-to-skin contact with several other people.

Anyway, this is not so bad to deal with imo: a simplified diet, contact with uncompromised people, decreased bathing, and sure, fecal transplants would probably be best practice, I'd opt in for that if it were me. With all that, I bet you'd be feeling pretty normal within a few months. Main symptoms would probably be slow or erratic digestion, constipation or diarrhea, stomach pain, appetite issues, etc. This would also probably affect energy levels and mood. You might notice when your first eyelash mites come back.

As for the virus/bacteria part. Viruses can become integrated within the cell, so that there's no "virus" to point to, it's just a sequence of code that's been inserted into your DNA. It's thought that large parts of our non-coding genome are leftovers of viral infections that have been sort of inactivated but still dragged around through evolutionary time, see also junk DNA. So if your cell is your cell, but has viral DNA lurking in it, you kind of have to take it with you in your teleporter right? Unless you want it to be snipping out tiny pieces of DNA from billions of cells, and imagine it somehow knows which pieces to snip, you have the potential to carry viruses with you with your setup. See retrovirus and lysogenic cyclere for info on how that works. Here's recent overview article for the human virome.

(I'm an ecologist but not your ecologist, and not a specialist in microbiomes.)
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:47 AM on April 29 [10 favorites]

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