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Scott Spencer: Turning Orderly Lives Into Chaos

Many of Spencer's novels feature a turning point -- a dreadful, unplanned act committed by one of the characters. In his latest book, Man in the Woods, a carpenter accidentally kills a man, which leads him to question himself and his relationship with God.

36:33

Other segments from the episode on September 15, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 15, 2010: Interview with Scott Spencer; Interview with Jeffrey Gordon.

Transcript

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Scott Spencer: Turning Orderly Lives Into Chaos

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

I always hope that I'll find something really special to read during my summer
vacation, and I lucked out this year because I got an advance copy of the new
novel by one of my favorite writers, Scott Spencer.

The novel was published yesterday, and Scott Spencer is my guest today. The
book is called "Man in the Woods." The main character, Paul Phillips,
accidentally kills someone in the woods and has to decide whether to confess to
the police or just continue his life.

He finds himself wishing there was a god he can turn to, a god that would
understand what went wrong, but he doesn't believe. The woman he lives with
does. She's a recovering alcoholic who's written a bestseller about recently
finding Jesus and realizing, quote, “that most of my old friends think I'm
ready for the funny farm, especially my liberal progressive friends who fear
that I've gone all Pat Robertson on them.”

Scott Spencer is the author of the bestselling books "Endless Love" and "A Ship
Made of Paper." He's taught fiction writing at Columbia University and in
prison.

Scott Spencer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I really love the book.

Mr. SCOTT SPENCER (Author, "Man in the Woods"): Oh, thank you, Terry, it's
great to be here.

GROSS: So I want you to do a reading. So let's set it up a little bit. So Paul
is a carpenter who is driving and takes a detour from the highway to go into
the woods to be alone. But soon he's not alone. A man joins him, a man who owes
a gambling debt he can't repay.

And this man is paranoid because he thinks the guys he owes the money to are
trying to hunt him down and that when they find him, they'll break his legs or
kill him.

This man also has a dog, a dog that he stole from his now-ex-girlfriend, and
he's kind of abusive to this dog. So would you explain what happens in the
woods when he meets the main character, Paul the carpenter?

Mr. SPENCER: Paul sees him, sees this man, and he sees him yanking his dog
around and hitting the dog. And it just is so deeply offensive to him that he
wants to intervene. And he says: Hey, stop doing that. And one thing leads to
another.

And the man is so fearful that he feels that the only way to protect himself is
to actually become even more violent toward the dog. And that enrages Paul, and
they have an altercation, an altercation that really is kind of pushing and
shoving and futile hitting that people who don't really know how to fight
engage in. But it does become very violent, and the man is accidentally killed.

GROSS: So I want you to read what happens after Paul, who's really the main
character of the novel, accidentally kills this man who's been abusing the dog,
and Paul has no idea what he's supposed to do now.

Mr. SPENCER: Well, he says: I'm not even innocent. I won't even be able to say
it was self-defense because I was never in danger. I did it. I'm going to be
arrested.

But what difference does the possibility of arrest make next to the overriding
fact that a man's life has just ended? A man is dead. A heart has stopped. A
future has been cancelled. A wife, children, friends, all of the pleasures of
love, the sky, music, touch, food, wine, have just been taken away forever. A
man is dead, no more able to share in the glories of the earth than if he had
never been born.

Paul clutches his head. It is so difficult to think. This much he knows: His
life is a coin. It has been flipped, and now, against a darkening sky, it turns
over and over. From the morass, there rises a question: How can this be
happening?

And he wishes suddenly, fervently, that there was a god looking on with his eye
on the sparrow and everything else, knowing what we did, what we meant, what we
did not mean, what was deliberate, what was accidental, what was so perplexing
and mixed, you couldn't with any confidence say what was what.

GROSS: That's Scott Spencer, reading from his new novel "Man in the Woods."
Your novels often have a turning point, a dividing line in which some dreadful,
often unplanned and unintended horrible act has been committed, after which
nothing will be the same.

This time, it's this accidental, totally unintended murder. Why did you choose
murder this time to be the turning point?

Mr. SPENCER: I think that you're right that I am very interested in lives being
changed very, very suddenly. I'm interested in how close our orderly lives are
to utter chaos, just the way we see, you know, how savagery can break out in
societies that a year before were orderly.

I – so, you know, I've had people change their life by setting a fire, and I've
had people changing their lives by what, by failing to prevent someone from
leaving.

But this act of - and I don't really call it murder. I really call it
manslaughter because there was no intention, but this act of violence, this
expression of some inner rage and some inner beastliness is, you know, is
compelling to me because I can identify with it.

I think that it's something that we all wonder about. I think it's something
that we all wonder if we would be capable of an act of violence and under what
circumstances would we be capable of it and what would the aftermath be.

I mean, I'm very interested in writing about conscience. And I wanted to test
somebody's conscience. I wanted to really push somebody to the very edge of
what they could accept about themselves.

GROSS: Do you think of this as your kind of cerebral version of a crime novel,
a crime novel about someone who isn't a criminal type, someone who hasn't been
in a fight since he was a teenager, someone who never intended to commit a
crime?

Mr. SPENCER: Well, I'm not sure that I think of it that way. You know, it might
be that without my having intended it to be. You know, I was really moved by
something I read, and I think it was one of Camus' notebooks or diaries when he
says, you know, a guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a
confession.

And I thought, gee, that's, you know, first of all so beautiful, and it just
reminded me of something that I would have wanted to deal with in my own
writing.

I also wanted to deal with dogs because I live with so many dogs. So, all these
things sort of converged and I found myself with a book on my hands.

GROSS: How many dogs do you have?

Mr. SPENCER: I have three dogs.

GROSS: Okay. So let's get to dogs. You know, we've seen the man – the main
character, Paul, commit manslaughter in the woods. He accidentally kills this
man who has been abusing his dog, and watching that abuse so upsets Paul that
he gets into a fight with the man.

So, you know, after the murder, Paul is thinking he wishes he could believe in
a god. He wishes he could believe in a god that is watching us and that
understands our intentions, understands what we are really thinking and the
reasons behind our actions. But he doesn't believe in that god.

So let's get to the question of the dog. Paul has to decide what to do with the
dog. Does he keep the dog? Does he get rid of the dog? Because the dog is,
like, the witness and the dog is the evidence. So would you read that passage
where Paul's wondering about the dog?

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah, he says: If I am going to have a chance at really walking
away from this, I need to get rid of this dog. But he could not think it
through. He couldn't figure it out, where he would bring the dog, where the dog
would be safe. The dog had suffered enough. That much was clear.

That one fact was true north. Paul could not beat a man to death for kicking
the dog in the ribs and then just open the door of his truck and let the dog
fend for itself. The dog is his witness, his confessor. He has seen it all, and
he can still sit next to Paul, breathing with him, trusting him.

The dog is the reason. The dog is what has been salvaged from the worst moment
of Paul's life. The dog is the bridge which Paul walks upon as he inches his
way over the abyss. The dog is God spelled backwards. Paul turns for another
look at Shep(ph) but can't see him. The dog has drowned in the darkness of the
truck's cabin.

GROSS: So yes, the dog is God spelled backwards. Do you believe in dog more
than you believe in God?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: Well, I feel - I definitely believe in dog. There's no question -
you can't have as much dog hair in your house as I do and not believe in dog.

And about God, it was one of the things I was most interested in figuring out
while writing this book. And at one point, I thought, I'm really writing a
religious book here. And then at another point in the writing of it, I said,
I'm really writing a very irreligious book or anti-religious book.

And then when I finally finished the book, I realized what I had written was
something that was, this is not a contradiction in terms, something that was
passionately agnostic, really as passionate about agnosticism as much as Graham
Greene is passionate about his Catholicism because I could feel, I could feel
the otherworldly intentions of fate hovering over my characters.

Yet, I could not ever really ever quite come to a true narrative understanding
that this fate was really some sort of otherworldly intelligence that made
sense enough that we could call it God.

GROSS: Is being passionate about agnosticism a position that you only recently
arrived at?

Mr. SPENCER: Yes. I've really, before, have bounced between atheism and a
desire to have some sort of - give some sort of religious meaning to my life.

You know, I was just talking to my mother last week and she talked to me about
when I was, like, a little kid. Sometimes, she'd have to bring me to a church,
not that we went to church because my parents were militantly atheistic, but
she'd go to a church for some community meeting and then turn around and I'd be
gone.

And she'd find me in one of the pews sort of praying fervently. And I always
had this feeling that I wished that religion and a belief in God, and that
ritual and that living metaphor in which I could explain my life was available
to me.

And there would just be times when I would just feel such sort of withering
contempt for the whole thing, and I was sort of glad that I hadn't entered into
that sort of, that system of thought.

But, you know, novelists, I think, think a lot about God because, you know,
they say doctors play God, and they do to an extent because, you know, they're
always monkeying around or trying to fix things. But they're dealing with
what's already there.

Novelists, you take that God thing one step further. We create whole worlds and
then we people them. And, you know, then we tell the people what to do: We make
them fall in love or jump out of windows. So there is that curiosity about God
that I think all novelists have.

GROSS: So were you brought with a religion at all?

Mr. SPENCER: No, I was brought up militantly without a religion. My parents...

GROSS: And what was the religion you were not brought up with, if you know what
I mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: Let me list off all the religions I wasn't brought up with. But my
parents' parents were Jews.

GROSS: But you mentioned going to church.

Mr. SPENCER: Well, it was a church that - my mother was not there for religious
reasons. She was there for a community meeting. You know, they were civic-
minded. They were always going to meetings. And so this one happened to be in a
church.

And I was raised on the south side of Chicago in a working-class neighborhood.
My father worked in a steel mill. And our neighbors were, by and large, either
Polish or Irish Catholics.

And from time to time, like, one of their older sisters would get married, or
confirmation. I would go to church, and I would just be filled with not only
awe but longing.

And really, it was only out of some sort of great love and respect for my
parents that I kept it to myself because my feeling was that they would be just
absolutely heartbroken and mortified if I ever confessed to them that I would
like to give that churchgoing thing a crack.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SPENCER: So much so that I would lie on our little lawn and stare up at the
sky and wait and wait and wait for some sort of definitive sign that would give
me the courage to go in and tell my parents that I'd had it with being an
atheist, that it was time for me to go to church.

GROSS: But it had to be church, not a synagogue? It wasn't going to be Judaism?

Mr. SPENCER: I didn't even know about synagogues yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay, this was really...

Mr. SPENCER: This was before synagogues came to America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: No, a few years later, some new houses were built in our area. The
houses that we lived in were $11,000, and these new houses were kind of posh,
$14,000 houses. And some Jewish families moved in, and suddenly, there was a
temple in the area.

And so, that became another place where I would have liked to have gone,
although maybe it's because my first taste of religion was in the Catholic
Church, nothing really that I've ever seen since has had that kind of visceral
impact on me.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Scott Spencer, and his
new novel is called "Man in the Woods." Let's take a short break here and then
we'll talk some more about your new book. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Scott Spencer, and we're talking
about his new novel, "Man in the Woods."

Now, because there are so often some kind of crime that is usually
unintentionally committed or is an act of passion gone wrong in your novels, I
find it especially interesting that you've been teaching writing in prison as
part of the Bard Prison Initiative, in which you can actually earn a degree in
prison through these in-prison course.

So you are actually spending time teaching people, you know, working with
people on their writing who have been convicted of a crime and who are living
in that place in which you are, you know, put away to pay for your crime and
theoretically to reflect on what you've done.

And I guess I'm really curious what that experience is like for you as somebody
who’s written about people who have transgressed, who’ve crossed the line.

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah, it's the most amazing teaching experience I've ever had. The
prison population I was working with were all guys, all men in a maximum
security prison. So they had all committed acts of, you know, grave – I mean,
they were just, they had done really severely wrong things.

I mean, I had one man in my class who was there for armed robbery, and he was
the only nonviolent, I mean relatively nonviolent criminal who I was teaching.

It was inspiring in so many ways because you could never find 15 men who read
more carefully and more passionately and with, you know, with more eagerness
and hunger than the guys in that class. I mean, they would read, you know,
everything from, you know, Robert Stone to Edgar Allan Poe to Alice Munro, and
they would always have the most complex and interesting and engaged response to
the work.

A lot of them were men whose formal schooling in the schools outside of the
prison was patchy at best. And so, you know, one of the things that you sort of
despair about when you're teaching, you know, in MFA programs is you have
writers who actually have a lot of talent and have chops, that have a great
deal of desire to write, but they just really haven't, they just haven't had
that much happen to them yet in life. So their stories tend to either be, you
know, notional or sort of too youthfully observed or just about things that are
basically about their families.

And in the case of the people in the prison writing program, they had a lot to
write about. They had a lot of stuff that you sort of eagerly go to writers to
find out because they've seen something of the world that you haven't seen.

Just the way, you know, people would read, like, Melville's early novels to
find out what life was like in the South Seas, you would want to read these
guys' stories to find out what life was like in some of those communities.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're getting insights into the kind of life and the
kind of mind and the kind of conscience or lack of conscience that you want to
understand more about as a novelist?

Mr. SPENCER: One of the things that I learned from working with these guys is
how alike we all are. There's, for the most part, most of these men, if I would
have met them somehow under different circumstances, I would probably not have
been able to guess that these guys had killed anybody or, you know, had been
part of some, you know, vast criminal undertaking.

The commonality that we have just as human beings is, for me, the most moving
and the most instructive part of working with them.

GROSS: My guest, Scott Spencer, will be back in the second half of the show.
His new novel is called "Man in the Woods." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Scott Spencer, the author
of the novels "Endless Love," "A Ship Made of Paper" and "Willing." His new
novel is called "Man in the Woods." He's taught fiction writing at Columbia
University, the University of Iowa and Williams College. But he says the most
amazing teaching experience he's ever had is teaching writing in a maximum
security prison in New York. We were talking about that when we left off.

What's it like for you the moment you walk into the prison and what's the
moment like when you leave the prison? It must feel pretty overwhelming.

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah. It is overwhelming. That's a great question, because between
my car, which I pulled into the prison parking lot, and the classroom where I
meet with the students, I go through I would say at least 12 locked gates, you
know, all of them just, you know, big, thick cast iron gates with these
gigantic jailhouse keys. And it's - you go through a maze. The first, you’re
always escorted. You can never go anywhere alone, of course. Although, in the
classroom I am alone, there's not a guard there. It's just me and the students.
And so you are going deeper and deeper and deeper into the kind of cavern of
this prison and you’re passing guys, some of them being marched by guards with
their hands handcuffed behind their back and some of them are pushing mops and
some of them, you know, getting ready to work in the cafeteria, some of them
looking at you, most of them not looking at you, everyone's sort of locked in
their own personal space, and you do feel this tremendous despair.

I think you would have to be anesthetized. Whatever you think about criminal
justice, whether you think these guys have gotten the right deal, whether you
think their life could've been different if they'd been given different breaks
in life, whether you think their sentences could've been different if they'd
had better representation, whatever your feeling is about crime and punishment,
you'd have to be deeply anesthetized not to feel this great sinking sense of
sadness to be in an environment where there are hundreds and hundreds and
hundreds of men locked up in cages. It's really - it’s nightmarish and
overwhelming. And, you know, it's a terrible thing to see but it does make you
very, very appreciative of your own life.

You know, you asked me what it was like going in and just going deeper and
deeper into this environment where everybody is in a cage. The opposite is when
you walk out and suddenly there's the sky and there's your car and you’re going
to get in your car and you’re going to drive home and in 45 minutes you’re
going to be in your own house and your girlfriend's going to be there and
you’re going to - you can eat whatever you want and drink whatever you want and
do whatever you want. It's stuff that we take for granted but it feels just
absolutely almost like you’ve won the lottery every time you leave that place.

GROSS: So your novel is called "Man in the Woods" and one the character says,
guys get into the woods. We go back to our elemental selves and stuff happens.
And then he says, men do what men do. We're just part of the scheme of things.
We're just nature. And after reading that, I read a piece that you wrote for O
Magazine - Oprah's magazine in May of 2008, and you wrote in that, the simple
truth is that men are somewhat violent, even those of us who abhor violence.
Even if we are cerebral, out of shape, blind in one eye, many of us expect of
ourselves levels of daring and aggression that would quite frankly horrify most
women, if it didn't reduce them to helpless laughter.

So do you believe that, that somewhere deep inside most men there's this level
of violence and that that’s the kind of thing that can be unleashed in the
woods?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: I do believe that. I do also want to say that I'm not terribly out
of shape or blind in one eye, so I just want to make that clear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. SPENCER: But I think that men have an acceptance of violence - acceptance
of the validity of violence. I think that, I mean I believe that if a man is
walking down the street and some stranger comes up and smacks him in the back
of the head, and if the man who is smacked in the back of the head just, you
know, says ow, and, you know, continues to walk on and doesn’t do something
about it, his greatest grudge will be against himself at that point. He won't
say what was wrong with that crazy guy who just came up to me for no reason and
smacked me in the back of the head. He'll ask, what was wrong with me that I
didn’t respond in kind? And I do think that that is gender specific.

GROSS: And in this article you wrote: From the beginning of organized society,
boys have been raised to accept the idea that one day they might be called upon
to either kill or be killed, to be ready to defend their home, their villages,
their tribes against harm.

Have you ever felt that pressure to physically defend somebody or a home
against harm?

Mr. SPENCER: I've always felt that that is a responsibility that I was born to
because I'm male. I mean when I was 10 years old, my father said, you know, men
don’t sleep as deeply as women because we need to be ready if somebody comes.
In my life as I've actually led it, I've always felt that it's up to me to step
in if somebody who is sort of in my circle who I, just because of my
relationship to them, I am sort of duty-bound to protect it, it is up to me to
step in. You know, I have not been in some situation like that Dustin Hoffman
character in "Straw Dogs" who...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I hope not.

Mr. SPENCER: ...who's there with his little wire-rimmed glasses and his sort of
porn-starry-looking wife while all these kind of cretin-ish locals pound on the
windows and try to get in, but there have been a couple of instances when I've
had to sort of man up, as we say, and step between someone who I feel was mine
to protect somehow and someone who was going to do them some harm.

GROSS: Would you share one of those instances?

Mr. SPENCER: I'll share a funny and somewhat banal one that - my mother got out
of a taxicab and she was having this huge argument with the cab driver because
in her view, he had taken her way out of her way as a way of running up the
fare. And I'm not sure that that was really true, but she was very, very
irritated at the idea that this guy was cheating her. And they - when she got
out of the cab, she said this guy cheated me on my fare. And the cab driver,
who was a guy about my size, maybe a few years younger than me at the time, you
know, got out and just, you know, wagged his finger in my mother's face and
called her a name and, you know, a pretty bad name. And I thought to myself, oh
no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: Now I have to do something. This guy is probably, in the full
scheme of things, he's probably in the right, because I was looking at the fare
on the meter. It didn’t seem unreasonable. She had come in from La Guardia, it
was all the way to the Village. It seemed like a normal fare. But on the other
hand, he had crossed the line. He had called my mother a name. So I hit him.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. SPENCER: I hit him. Not that hard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: On the face?

Mr. SPENCER: No. I hit him in the stomach.

GROSS: Oh, you punched him.

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah. I punched him.

GROSS: Ah, and he did what?

Mr. SPENCER: He called me a name and he just looked at us like we were just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: You two deserve each other. I'm getting out of here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now this whole idea that deep inside men is this kind of like almost
genetic impulse to be prepared to defend friends, family, home, cities,
villages against harm. And I'm wondering...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...if you think that that's a philosophy you maybe created to explain
this - these occasional impulses that you have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: You know, it's very hard to say what anyone is genetically because
you can never see anybody outside of society, because people don’t exist
outside of society. You cannot - you can't find a person who isn't culturally
determined to one extent or another.

GROSS: True.

Mr. SPENCER: We all are.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SPENCER: So I don’t know. I mean until we start making people in test tubes
and keeping...

GROSS: I thought we were doing that. Okay, go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: But then we send them off some place and then we have to keep them
in the lab and study them. But even then, they'll be victims of some sort of
depravation. So it's very hard to say what people are in essence. I think it’s
one of the jobs that novels have, really. I mean it's one of the things that
keeps people reading, I believe, is that we are endlessly sort of amazed and
curious and perplexed about what is our nature.

GROSS: The first real - I mean your biggest hit in terms of your books, is
"Endless Love," which was a bestseller and was adapted into a film that, as
we’ve talked about before on FRESH AIR, had so little to do with the book that
it's based on. It's a wonderful, wonderful book.

Mr. SPENCER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: But then it was that hit with Diana Ross. Who did she do it with on
that? Lionel Richie. Lionel Richie.

Mr. SPENCER: Lionel Richie.

GROSS: Okay. And...

Mr. SPENCER: Who I think wrote it.

GROSS: Okay. So, I've just been thinking about - now, I've been thinking about
how the title of your new book is "Man in the Woods." And it’s not a man in the
woods. It’s not the man in the woods. It’s about man in the woods. And so the
lack of like an a or a the in the title is significant. So I was thinking of
like the song, the title song from the movie adaptation of your book "Endless
Love." It's like my endless love. And like you can't, like the lyric is, and
your eyes, your eyes, your eyes, they tell me how much you care. Oh yes, you
will always be my endless love. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like, a person isn't your endless - and the endless love in your title
is about this kind of like this love that won't stop. This kind of obsessive,
dangerous love that force - that gets this person to transgress all ethical
boundaries and become this like horrible stalker and commit horrible acts. I
mean, how did you feel about the word my in there - my endless love?

Mr. SPENCER: Well, it was actually the least of my worries.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: And who knows what's going to happen next because I just - I
learned a couple of months ago that Universal Pictures, which owns the rights
to that book, is planning now to do a remake.

GROSS: No. Really?

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah. It makes you want to quote William Burroughs.

GROSS: Who said?

Mr. SPENCER: Pack your ermines, Mary. We're getting out of here right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Scott Spencer, it's always great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. SPENCER: Thank you, Terry. It was wonderful to talk to you.

GROSS: Scott Spencer's new novel is called "Man in the Woods." You can read an
excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, the trillions of microbes that live on or in your body and why some
of them might actually hold the keys to preventing or treating certain
diseases.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Bacterial Bonanza: Microbes Keep Us Alive

TERRY GROSS, host:

I think the research I did for my next interview has permanently changed the
way I see my body. I didn’t realize that the overwhelming majority of cells on
or in my body aren't human cells. They're microorganisms, mostly bacteria. And
as creepy as that sounds, although some of those bacteria can cause disease,
others might help cure or prevent disease. The vast majority of these microbes
live in the intestines.

My guest, Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, is studying the microbial ecosystem of the human
gut and how microbes affect digestive health, predisposition to disease and
possibly obesity.

Dr. Gordon directs the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington University in
St. Louis, which is in the process of sequencing the genomes of the human gut.
It's a microbial version of the Human Genome Project which identified all the
genes in human DNA.

Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, welcome to FRESH AIR. Give us a sense of the magnitude of
microorganisms that live on or in our bodies.

Dr. JEFFREY GORDON (Director, Center for Genome Sciences, Washington
University): It's rather staggering. We think that there are 10 times more
microbial cells on and in our bodies than there are human cells. That means
that we're 90 percent microbial and 10 percent human. There's also an estimated
100 times more microbial genes than the genes in our human genome. So we're
really a compendium, an amalgamation of parts that are both human and
microbial.

GROSS: There's something very upsetting about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, to think that only 10 percent of the cells we're carrying are
only human cells and the rest are microorganisms.

Dr. GORDON: It's humbling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GORDON: But, of course, it's very - we have this anthropocentric view of
ourselves as somehow superior as a life form. Yet, the most ancient of life is
suffused on and in us. But I also think it’s quite natural, because all life
that's appeared, all the animal life that's appeared on our planet has to
adapt, has to collude and collaborate with microbes, which are the dominant
life form on Earth.

GROSS: So which parts of our bodies make the best homes?

Dr. GORDON: Well, the savored place, at least in terms of number, is the human
gut.

GROSS: And that's your part. That's what you’re studying.

Dr. GORDON: That's right. I and know the number one trillion has lost its
impact factor over the last couple of years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GORDON: But there are tens and tens of trillions of microbes that live in
our human gut. And they're not just bacteria, but bacteria dominate.

GROSS: So you say most of the microorganisms we are carrying around are in our
gut but what other parts of the body are they populating?

Dr. GORDON: All exposed surfaces, our skin, our mouth, and one of the
challenges is, and we can talk about this in a minute, is to be able to
determine what life exists within us and on us, how does this vary, when do we
acquire it, and how does it relate to our definitions of health, our
predispositions to disease and our manifestations of disease?

GROSS: So this leads to exactly what you’re doing now, which is cataloging the
human micro biome. You’re cataloging what microorganisms live on and in us and
what do they do. And this has great implications for health care, for remaining
healthy and for treating disease. Do you want to say any more about why you're
cataloging the micro biome?

Dr. GORDON: We're trying to identify who's there and what’s there. But more
importantly, we're trying to understand how these compendium of microbes, how
these vast collections, operate as a community, how they are shaped by the
habitats in which they live, in turn, how they shape us. And I think that's the
principle objective here. It's not simply to create a list, but to understand
at the end, how these communities operate in health and in disease, how they
contribute to our normal physiology, how they are components of our
physiological variations, how they affect our risk for disease, and lastly,
could they be a new set of targets, these communities, for personalized
medicine.

These microbes have learned a lot about us. We should be humble. We need to go
to school and learn the lessons that they’ve learned. And some of these lessons
may be very important in terms of treating or preventing diseases.

GROSS: So some microorganisms keep us healthy, others are bad guys and make us
sick. Give us a dramatic example of a study that was done - an experiment, just
to see if transplanting good guy bacteria into a gut could help treat a
disease. And there's actually a very specific experiment I'd like you to
discuss, if you could, and that had to do with a patient who had a C.
difficile, which is a bacterial infection that causes such extreme diarrhea
that some elderly people die as a result. And it's an infection that spreads in
a lot of nursing homes and hospitals, and is really horrible for people who
have it.

Dr. GORDON: Yes. This is a disease that can produce acute illness. It's a
disease that in some cases, when treated, comes back again. And as you alluded
to, in this particular example, a patient with C. difficile was treated with a
microbial community, a gut microbial community from a healthy individual.

GROSS: So how was that done in this particular experiment?

Dr. GORDON: Well, in this particular case, a fecal community was transplanted
into a diseased individual's gut and there was a beneficial effect observed
over time, reflected in improvement of their symptoms. But let's step back for
a moment and ask: to what extent can we attribute different aspects of our
physiology to our microbial communities?

If a person has a physiologic state, if they're obese or if they have diseases
like inflammatory bowel disease, how much of that disease is attributable to
their microbial communities and how could we establish that relationship? How
much of their physiological phenotypes - by that I mean certain aspects of
their biology - can be transmitted to another individual via their microbial
communities?

GROSS: I guess one of the things I find so interesting about this fecal
transplant is one, it’s a fecal transplant. It's so odd to think of using in
this case, a spouse's feces or the community of microorganisms in those feces
to transplant into the ill person's gut. It’s a way of transplanting good guy
bacteria instead of using antibiotics to just kill the bad guy bacteria and in
the process, kill the good guy bacteria too.

Dr. GORDON: Exactly. Well, first of all, I agree, it evokes a sort of
scatologic focus and...

GROSS: Which I see you’ve been trying to avoid because that's so creepy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...to think about it but...

Dr. GORDON: Well, actually, it's also a reflection that most people have this
view of our encounters with microbes from the perspective of disease. But that
couldn’t be farther from the truths. Most of our interactions with microbes are
beneficial and are healthy. And here you have an example of a transplantation
of a microbial community. Not one organism, because we wouldn’t know which one
organism to introduce to help cure this recurrent and relapsing and severe
disease, but rather a whole ensemble of organisms - a society that has been
assembled that functions to promote health in the donor and now is brought to a
new place where it can affect the perturbed or disturbed functions of a
community, and I think that's quite amazing.

Of course, we have to understand the details, as we talked about earlier, about
how that worked, what components of the community invaded, took hold, what
their professions or niches were that allowed them to help eradicate this
disease. And can we do this, not only in the context of C. difficile, but other
diseases where this function, at the level of a microbial community, like
metabolic dysfunction, could somehow be cured.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Dr. Jeffrey Gordon. He's the
director of the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at Washington
University in St. Louis. And what they are doing here is cataloging the human
microbe biome - the microorganisms living in or on the human body and
considering what impact that has on human health and on human disease.

Let's take a short break here and then we’ll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Dr. Jeffrey Gordon. He's the director of the Center for
Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at Washington University in St. Louis. And
this center is cataloging the human microbe biome - the microorganisms living
in or on the human body.

Now you’re doing research on the microorganisms in our gut and the relationship
they may have to obesity. Tell us a little bit about the experiments that
you’re actually doing in the lab now with mice. How do you get the mice to have
the same kind of microbe biome - the same kind of microorganisms in their gut
as humans do?

Dr. GORDON: Well, we started out by comparing mice with mouse gut communities
and mice that were obese, either because they had genetic mutations that made
them obese or because we fed them diets that were the equivalent of Western
diets. And we observed that there were changes in their microbial communities
that were associated with obesity. We didn’t know whether those changes and
who's there and what genes are there in those communities were casually or
causally related to obesity. So we did a micro biome transplant experiment.

And let me explain what that involved. We took a set of mice that were lean, we
took a set of mice that were obese and transplanted their microbial communities
into germ-free recipients. These were mice that were reared under very special
circumstances were they were never exposed to microbes during the course of
their lives and they received these microbial community transplants when they
were adults. And we noted that those mice that received the microbial
communities from obese donors gained more fat than those mice that received
microbial communities from lean donors.

GROSS: So look into the future five years from now and give us one example that
you think is a possible way, and I know this is all hypothetical, but a
possible way we might use the knowledge of bacteria to treat or prevent a
disease.

Dr. GORDON: I think that very targeted manipulation of microbes in a gut
community with very focused antimicrobial therapies. Or, the introduction of
very well-equipped bacteria that can digest components of our diet will be a
series of approaches that will be used.

Second, I think that there are certain genes that decorate the surfaces of our
gut - the lining surfaces of our gut - that are being manipulated by our
microbial communities and that we'll see chemical entities, either those made
by the microbial communities or those invented by pharmaceutical companies -
that may be already invented by pharmaceutical companies - applied to those
human genes that are being manipulated by the microbes, either to enhance the
effects of the microbes, these genes, or to block the effects of certain
microbes on these genes.

GROSS: Well, Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. GORDON: Thank you for listening and it’s a pleasure.

GROSS: Dr. Jeffrey Gordon directs the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington
University in St. Louis. You can download Podcasts of our show on our website,
freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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