The New York Times says that cavities are contagious. Hopefully when we kiss we trade bacteria that benefit digestion as well.
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Does free will exist? Follow your gut on this one. An article in Scientific American reports that bacteria in the gut may influence brain development and behavior:
this new study is the first to extensively evaluate the influence of gut bacteria on the biochemistry and development of the brain. The scientists raised mice lacking normal gut microflora, then compared their behavior, brain chemistry and brain development to mice having normal gut bacteria. The microbe-free animals were more active and, in specific behavioral tests, were less anxious than microbe-colonized mice. In one test of anxiety, animals were given the choice of staying in the relative safety of a dark box, or of venturing into a lighted box. Bacteria-free animals spent significantly more time in the light box than their bacterially colonized littermates. Similarly, in another test of anxiety, animals were given the choice of venturing out on an elevated and unprotected bar to explore their environment, or remain in the relative safety of a similar bar protected by enclosing walls. Once again, the microbe-free animals proved themselves bolder than their colonized kin.
When Pettersson’s team performed a comprehensive gene expression analysis of five different brain regions, they found nearly 40 genes that were affected by the presence of gut bacteria. Not only were these primitive microbes able to influence signaling between nerve cells while sequestered far away in the gut, they had the astonishing ability to influence whether brain cells turn on or off specific genes.
The article also runs down some other findings on the possible influence of gut bacteria on our health and behavior:
these bacteria have been implicated in the development of neurological and behavioral disorders. For example, gut bacteria may have an influence on the body’s use of vitamin B6, which in turn has profound effects on the health of nerve and muscle cells. They modulate immune tolerance and, because of this, they may have an influence on autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis. They have been shown to influence anxiety-related behavior, although there is controversy regarding whether gut bacteria exacerbate or ameliorate stress related anxiety responses. In autism and other pervasive developmental disorders, there are reports that the specific bacterial species present in the gut are altered and that gastrointestinal problems exacerbate behavioral symptoms. A newly developed biochemical test for autism is based, in part, upon the end products of bacterial metabolism.
There are a bunch of links in that paragraph in the original article. Read the whole thing here and don’t fault me for recycling the joke the author uses to lead into the article—the Bifidobacteria made me do it.
Don’t miss it, guys. Ferment Change is back again with a month’s worth of events on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, all of them supporting urban agriculture and food justice projects. One of the choice items on the list is the Tour de Ferment, a bike ride around Berkeley and Oakland to visit picklers and homebrewers in their homes. It’s a great chance to see workshops, to taste what people are making, and to pick up tips. I’ll be talking about homebrewing sake, and my pop-up beer dinner crew Eating About Beer will be demonstrating some beer and food pairing tips.
And as a big bonus, none other than fermentation guru Sandor Katz, author of the seminal book Wild Fermentation, will be coming along for the ride. I’m sure he’ll add extra depth to the answers to any questions that come up along the way.
The ride is May 22, so consider this your advance notice. It’s going to be popular. Sign up and find out about the rest of the month’s events at the Ferment Change website.
And speaking of Sandor Katz, I let Thanksgiving go by without mentioning the profile of Katz and the fermentation movement in the New Yorker. It’s a great article that brings together a lot of info about how fermentation helps us digest, why live-fermented and unpasteurized food could be better for us than sterilized food, and the ways that our intestinal cultures may influence our health (the short version of one example: In one study, skinny mice became fat after receiving a transplant of intestinal bacteria from fat mice, and from fat humans,too.) It’s behind the paywall, but it’s worth the $6 to read it if you don’t have a subscription. In the spirit of the Tour de Ferment, I’ll leave you with this excerpt describing Katz’s workshop, which is surely every pickler’s dream kitchen:
We were standing in his test kitchen, in the basement of a farmhouse a few miles down the road from Hickory Knoll. Katz had rented the space two years earlier, when his classes and cooking projects outgrew the commune’s kitchen, and outfitted it with secondhand equipment: a triple sink, a six-burner stove, a freezer, and two refrigerators, one of them retrofitted as a tempeh incubator. Along one wall, a friend had painted a psychedelic mural showing a man conversing with a bacterium. Along another, Katz had pinned a canticle to wild fermentation, written by a Benedictine nun in New York. A haunch of venison hung in the back, curing for prosciutto, surrounded by mismatched jars of sourdough, goat kefir, sweet potato fly, and other ferments, all bubbling and straining at their lids.
And in case you’ve been wondering—Awesome Pickle lives! Some personal stuff has kept it on the shelf for a while, but the ideas have been fermenting away and this site’s mission is fully preserved. Expect more helpings, more often.