Life on Earth has been evolving for billions of years,
and in that time, life has gotten a lot more complicated
than just one thing eating another thing.
Life is a complicated and intricate web
of competition, exploitation, and symbiosis.
But what if an alien creature fell to Earth
and bonded with a host?
How would we even categorize that?
And could we?
What kind of symbiote is Venom?
The iconic comic villain known as Venom
has been terrorizing comic books, video games,
TV shows, and movies for decades.
A writing mass of alien goo,
the defining feature of Venom
and other symbiotes of its species
is that it needs a host to survive and, in exchange,
the creatures offer terrible viscous power.
Given everything we've seen so far, though,
especially in the films,
how would a biologist actually classify Venom?
Does it offer true symbiosis?
Is it a parasite or not?
Let's bond with our scientist suits and figure it out.
First of all, what is a symbiote?
Well, biologically speaking,
a symbiote is any organism engaged in a symbiosis,
originally defined as the living together
of unlike organisms.
There are three main kinds of symbiosis
where at least one of the organisms is benefiting,
and the third one is...
Mutualism is the one you're probably most familiar with,
like the classic example of the clownfish
cleaning and protecting sea anemones
in exchange for a stinging and protected home.
Parasitism, on the other hand,
is where one organism is benefiting
at the expense of another,
like a female mosquito taking your blood
to supply her brood.
And in commensalism, one organism is benefiting,
and the other doesn't really care,
like a spider building its web in a plant.
Hm, I wonder if that one is venomous.
Is it in me?
Those are the very basics,
but because life is complicated,
there are a number of intricacies
that we must consider if we want to exactly nail down
just what kind of symbiote Venom is.
Not all symbiotic relationships are so easy to define,
like the sea anemone and the clownfish.
For example, take the yellow-billed oxpecker.
It seems like the classic mutualistic relationship.
It gets a ride from the mammals that it perches on,
and in exchange it cleans ticks
and other parasites off their backs.
However, it also starts pecking those mammals
so much that it cuts into their backs
so they can slurp up the blood.
So is it a true mutualist or is it
Or consider the graceful rock crab.
You can often find the juveniles of this species
hitching rides on the bells of the egg-yolk jellyfish,
where they kind of just sit there
and nibble on the jellyfish for food.
But when they mature,
these crabs switch from eating the jellyfish
to eating the parasites that are on these jellyfish.
So in one life cycle it goes from parasite to mutualist.
So is it best described as a parasite, really?
There are a number of complicated examples
like this in the animal kingdom,
so acknowledging all this intricacy,
how should we start classifying Venom?
I find that making a chart helps.
So let's say we have two species
engaged in a symbiotic relationship.
We can start to classify the nature of that relationship
by the benefit, the neutralness, or the harmfulness
to both organisms.
Wow, that's a lot of goo.
We've already been through the first three scenarios,
where at least one organism is benefiting in the exchange.
There's also competition, which harms both organisms,
there's neutralism, where nothing is really going on,
and there's also amensalism,
where one organism is actively affecting the other,
but that other isn't affecting the other one in return,
like a large tree starving a smaller tree of light
simply because it is larger.
Now, I know that Venom, as a symbiote,
has deleterious effects on the minds of its hosts,
but given the facts that it confers superpowers
to those hosts and it was banished from its original planet
for not wanting to fully dominate its host,
I think its mutualistic tendencies
outweigh the parasitic ones, which makes Venom,
biologically speaking, more of a mutualist.
That felt like throwing up in reverse.
And we can be more specific,
because there are even more sides to symbiosis.
Venom is more of a mutualist than a parasite,
but just how does it express that mutualism?
The first is obligate.
In an obligate symbiosis,
one or both organisms simply cannot live
without the interaction.
The tube worms that live near hydrothermal vents
at the bottom of the ocean
are a very cool example of obligate symbiosis.
They have a symbiosis with bacteria inside of them.
They don't even have a digestive tract,
and so without those bacteria turning chemicals into food,
they wouldn't be able to survive at all.
On the other hand,
a facultative symbiotic relationship
is one in which one or both organisms
can live independently of the other if they had to.
For example, hyenas are kleptoparasites
with other species like lions, stealing their food,
but it's a facultative relationship
because hyenas can hunt food on their own just fine.
I think that it's laughing at Tom Hardy's accent.
Beyond how a symbiote lives is where it lives.
If two organisms engaged in a relationship
live independently of each other,
like the pistol shrimp does with its protector fish
that it builds a burrow for, the goby fish,
then they simply are independent.
These relationships do get more intimate, though.
If a symbiote lives inside of the tissues
or even the cells of its host,
like chloroplasts do inside of plant cells,
which allow those cells to photosynthesize light,
then it's an endosymbiotic relationship.
And if a symbiote lives somewhere
on the surface of the body of its host,
like those terrible isopods do that replace fish tongues,
then it's an ectosymbiotic relationship.
Knowing all these permutations,
we now have all the information we need
to classify Venom.
We just need to come up with the right name.
What do you mean, we?
You can't just take over my...
Sure, why not?
All right, so what do we actually know about Venom?
Well, we know that in most incarnations,
it lives on the surface of its host,
and that it provides a substantial,
benefit to said host.
It also takes nourishment from that host
and conveys superpowers to it,
and it cannot live without something bonded to it.
An ectosymbiotic obligate mutualist.
Here's what I propose.
Because Venom is a gooey thing that affects your brain,
how about it's a viscous ectosymbiotic
neuroactive obligate mutualist?
A VENOM, if you will.
Kinda has a ring to it, doesn't it?
It really doesn't like you.
There are more symbiotes like Venom
in popular culture than you may think.
the babelfish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
which sit inside your ear and absorb your brainwaves
in exchange for language translations that it shoots out
would be an ectosymbiotic mutualist.
And maybe the most controversial organism in film history,
microscopic lifeforms that reside within all living cells,
midichlorians, would be endosymbiotic mutualists,
like the mitochondria they are presumably based on.
But the thing that is closest
to what Venom is isn't fictional.
Right now, there could be up to
100 trillion symbiotes living inside of you.
It's the bacteria inside of your gut.
And they are so numerous that your gut
has the highest recorded cell density of any ecosystem.
The numbers here aren't exact,
but it's likely that the microbes inside of you
outnumber your human cells, in total, 10 to one.
The research on these little symbiotes
is in the early stages,
but we have started to link
the makeup of the bacterial communities inside of you
to everything from weight loss and weight gain
to psychological factors like stress,
which would make this microbiome inside of you
ectosymbiotic neuroactive obligate mutualists.
And I bet they're a bit gooey in there,
so they would be Venoms as we define them.
Our gut flora likely affect our lives so much
by synthesizing neurotransmitters and hormones
and vitamins inside of our body
and affecting our moods, possibly,
and our weight, possibly,
that it wouldn't be inaccurate, when referring to our cells,
to talk about we to include them.
We have our own Venom.
So what kind of symbiote is Venom?
Well, given all the things the alien species
actually does with and to its host,
I don't think it's necessarily a straight-up parasite.
Rather, it's better described
as viscous ectosymbiotic neuroactive obligate mutualism.
Which would make it very close to a symbiotic relationship
happening inside of all of us right now
with our gut bacteria.
And who needs a suit from space,
when you can have trillions of organisms
living inside of you that outnumber
your human cells silently shaping your life
in ways you can't even imagine?
It's everywhere now.
Of course, the problem with our analysis
is that in all Venom everything,
everyone calls him a parasite.
But in the Venom movie and the comic tie-in to Venom,
Venom actually says that he hates the word parasite,
because he actually gives something in return,
and he was kicked off of his planet
for not being parasitic enough.
I think we're pretty close.
And as Eminem would say, knock, knock, let the science in.
I think is the lyric.
Thank you so much for watching, Craig.
If you want more of me, go to Alpha at ProjectAlpha.com,
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Venom is an iconic Spider-Man foe gaining power from the alien symbiote, but what is it exactly? Is it more parasite or something else? Kyle takes a closer look on this week's Because Science!
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Learn more: • VENOM CHARACTER: https://nerdi.st/2DTQrzZ • SYMBIOSIS: http://bit.ly/2IAs3C5 • HOST-BACTERIAL MUTUALISM IN THE HUMAN INTESTINE: http://bit.ly/2O24xnF • EXPLORING THE MANY SHADES OF SYMBIOSES: http://bit.ly/2OA7Phh