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What Kind of Symbiote Is Venom?

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.

Hmm, 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, you can get this show two days earlier than anyone else, and you can get other premium content from Nerdist and Geek and Sundry. If you like this video on Facebook, please consider liking it. And if you liked it on YouTube, hit that notification bell, fam, and subscribe, because we get up to a lot of fun stuff on this channel. Not just these main episodes, but also vlogs, where I talk directly to you, and live streams, where I take your questions. And follow me here. Thank you. 

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