Shot through with microbes: How our bodies adapt to a hidden world of bacteria

Our cells are home to ancient lodgers that play by their own rules.

Adapted from “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity,” published Tuesday by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Some families are ambushed by blindness. The children in these families are born with eyes that seem perfectly normal. But when they become young adults, some of them suddenly get blurry vision. In a matter of weeks, their central field of view may go completely dark.

The first doctor to notice this disease was Theodor Leber. In 1871, he described four families it plagued. The condition came to be known as Leber hereditary optic neuropathy. Yet even though “hereditary” was part of its name, the disease flouted heredity’s ordinary rules.

It could blind men and women alike, but when researchers drew up pedigrees of families with Leber hereditary optic neuropathy, they found that men could not pass the disease down to later generations. As for women, they passed it down in a baffling manner. Sometimes all their children lost their sight. Sometimes only one child did. Some children in a family might become profoundly blind while others only suffered blurry vision. And the daughters with blurry vision might have children of their own who went on to become suddenly blind.

Scientists spent over a century trying to make sense of the disease. And what they discovered has helped shape our understanding of the way in which heredity works.

Heredity cannot always be explained by the 23 chromosomes of DNA in our cells. Our cells are also home to ancient lodgers — bacteria that invaded the cells of our ancestors 1.8 billion years ago, with DNA of their own. These microbial residents, known as mitochondria, have become essential parts of our own biology. But even today, they play by their own hereditary rules.

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