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Out of order: Seeing things
March 2018
by Randall C Willis  |  Email the author

I remember hearing that if you played a specific track on a specific Beatles album backward, you would hear someone say “Paul is dead.” I also remember almost ruining both my album and record player trying to verify this secret message.
Listening to a George Carlin album, a punchline involved someone thrusting a bag of burgers toward the hapless drive-thru staff yelling “$2.52.” It was my first literal spit-take. And since that day, I see references to 252 everywhere.
Aside from indicating how old I am with the word “album,” I recount these anecdotes to highlight the idea that patterns seem to arise suddenly, and when they do, they become impossible to ignore.
More germane to DDNews, the most recent pattern I cannot seem to shake is discussion of the microbiome.
I’ve personally studied and have written about the biomolecular sciences for about 30 years. And over those three decades, I have run across a variety of endeavours and approaches that have captured the zeitgeist for a period, only to disappear several years later.
I am not so old as to remember the advents of DNA sequencing (recounted in our November 2017 Special Report), but I do recall the trumpet blare of The Human Genome Project. And with its first approach to my mind’s eye, the project and its promise was suddenly everywhere.
I remember dedicating dozens if not hundreds of publication pages to combinatorial chemistry, the molecular Tinker Toy that promised every molecule imaginable for high-throughput screening. Even in the day, it reminded me a bit of the adage about monkeys, typewriters and Shakespeare.
And of course, each of those approaches led to or greatly facilitated the explosion in informatics, as each produced a glut of data that desperately needed to be turned into actionable information. To my mind, while we have become good at the 'data to information' part, we are still challenged with 'actionable.'
As an outside observer, none of these approaches existed one day and then were everywhere the next. I am confident, however, that each existed before I became aware of them, and that sudden debut was the light-switch of awareness.
Unlike my 252 scenario, however, each of these sudden appearances was partnered with a gradual disappearance.
Just as the statement “Paul is dead” is now more apt to elicit the question “Paul who?”, so too are “The Human Genome Project” and “combinatorial chemistry” likely to elicit a turn of the head.
Not that they have left us, any more than Mr. McCartney has, but rather that they have evolved into a panoply of undertakings and simply become part of the background noise of science and society.
Which brings me back to my thoughts on the microbiome.
Since writing on the topic for our January 2017 Special Report, I have seen no end of references to the microbiome in terms of human health. Most recently, in the documentary series Rotten, the microbiome was discussed as an explanation for food allergies.
So, the microbiome is the new Human Genome Project, combinatorial chemistry and informatics?
I may be wrong, but I think the microbiome is different.
The others were technological advances. Not to minimize the achievements, but the outcomes each offered were possible using previous technologies—they just would have been more tedious and more expensive.
The microbiome, however, is a more conceptual advance. It is a change in our thinking about biology itself. The very fact that we are struggling to “science” the microbiome, in my mind, lends it credibility as a direction worth exploring.
In some ways, John Donne was wrong; each man (and woman and child) is an island. In this case, it’s an island of a dozen or more complex ecosystems that struggle to maintain homeostasis under constant external bombardment.
To complete Donne’s sentiment, however: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
That microbiomes appear to influence each other both within and between islands bears this out.
I suspect I will continue to see mentions of the microbiome in many facets of my life in the years to come. But whereas the idea was a revelation to me, as were the others, I don’t believe this represents a sudden revolution in technology so much as a sustained evolution in our understanding of what is.
As such, I suspect the microbiome has only begun to dazzle us.
Randall C Willis can be reached by email at



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