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What Kind of Symbiote Is Venom?

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Oct 04, 2018

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What Kind of Symbiote Is Venom?
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  • What kind of symbiote is Venom?
  • (spaceship crashing)
  • 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?
  • No!
  • O
  • kay.
  • 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,
  • duh,
  • 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,
  • mutualism,
  • parasitism,
  • and the third one is...
  • yeah, commensalism.
  • Right.
  • 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?
  • Is it in me?
  • Like where,
  • specifically?
  • 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.
  • Ow.
  • So is it a true mutualist or is it
  • ow
  • a parasite?
  • 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?
  • Ow!
  • Ah!
  • 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.
  • But helpful.
  • 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.
  • Oh!
  • 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,
  • ah,
  • then it's an ectosymbiotic relationship.
  • Oh.
  • Ah!
  • Ha
  • no!
  • 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.
  • We?
  • What do you mean, we?
  • You can't just take over my...
  • Oh.
  • Okay, we.
  • 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,
  • thank you,
  • 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.
  • Almost perfect.
  • 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?
  • Sorry!
  • It really doesn't like you.
  • There are more symbiotes like Venom
  • in popular culture than you may think.
  • For example,
  • 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.
  • Ironic.
  • 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?
  • Because science.
  • Ho!
  • Sorry.
  • 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.
  • So
  • 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,
  • where if you subscribe right now,
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Description

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