Finding Jaques (and other helpful organisms)

Now I know Finding Dory has out-hyped its predecessor, Finding Nemo. But if you can cast your mind back to P. Sherman’s fish tank at 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, you might remember my favourite character, Jacques the Shrimp.

He’s a Skunk Cleaner Shrimp, and as his name suggests, he cleans things, specifically other fish. But they aren’t just doing it to make friends, they’re doing it because the parasites they get off the other fish are their dinner.

Jacques the cleaner shrimp has a mutualistic relationship with the fish in his tank – image via Pixar Wiki


This is an example of a mutualistic relationship, where both parties benefit from the interaction. The fish come away sparkly clean, and the shrimp walks off with a full belly. The only one who really loses here is the parasite!

My favourite cleaner shrimp fact came to me in the form of the best title I’ll ever read in an academic paper: “Cleaner shrimp use a rocking dance to advertise cleaning service to clients”. Enough said.

And even though we humans don’t make a song or dance out of it (yet), we have our own version of a mutualistic relationship going on. But instead of shrimps, we have bacteria!

But bacteria equals disease, right?

Well, not always.

This idea started waaaay back in the very early years of the 1670s, when Dutch textile merchant Anton van Leeuwenhoek figured out how to make his own microscope. He was the first person to observe microorganisms, which are things like bacteria, fungi and archaea.

At first, the Royal Society of London didn’t believe his claims, as organisms that small had never before been thought of. But he persisted, and soon started the world’s obsession of seeing through the looking glass.

By the 20th century, scientists like Edward C. Hort was observing the role of bacteria in typhus and scarlet fevers. He was fascinated by how they changed in response to their environment, and how they went about causing disease and death.

From then on, bacteria became the enemy in medical practice. Scientists went reeling after discovering antibiotics in the 1960s, and the amount of diseases they could cure. Microorganisms were being wiped out here there and everywhere, all seemingly for the greater good.

But in the 70s, things started shifting. One study in 1974 analysed the bacteria found in faecal matter, and found 113 different kinds of organism. Scientists began to wonder why, if we were so full of bugs, why weren’t we sick all the time? They started to realise that maybe they’re not all so bad after all.

A change of heart

Fast forward almost half a century, and we now have the technology to read the genes of bacteria. We now know that there are over 1000 species of bacteria living in the human gut alone. The technology scientists have developed to study bacteria have changed the game, almost as much as the upgrade from riding horseback to now flying around in jumbo jets.

Microscopes and other imaging technologies have come a long way since Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope – image by whitesmoke1981 via Flickr


We now realise that we need these bacteria to live well. We might not immediately die without them, but without these bacteria, we would really struggle to thrive.

Pick on someone your own size

Helpful bacteria use your body as their environment: if you die, so do they! So naturally it is in their best interest to keep you alive. One way they can help with this is by acting as a line of defence against invading parasites.

When a nasty bug tries to get you sick, the good bacteria engage in combat and your body becomes their battle ground. The good guys can win by eating the invaders, or by warning your body’s cells about the invader, so that they can call for backup and get the body ready to attack.

Joey doesn’t share food

And unlike the loveable character from Friends thinks, Joey does share his food, just not with any people. The bacteria that live inside us will digest some of the food that’s in our intestines. They use some of these nutrients to help them grow, but will give a lot of it back to us, helping us gain more nutrients and energy from our food.

And as an extra bonus, some of these bacteria in our gut will use our food to make molecules that are involved in mood balance as well as boosting our immunity.

It’s lucky we are realising the importance of bacteria and other microorganisms now, because without them, we could become very sick as a species. So whilst they aren’t as flashy as a French-accented cleaning shrimp, we do have to hand it to bacteria for keeping us healthy and happy. And all we have to do in return is not die so they can keep using our bodies as a happy home!