A Trip to the North

by Alexander Tarakhovsky

A sleepless visit to the dreary North brings to mind unusual experiments involving sperm and germ-free mice

Alexander Tarakhovsky, Our Microbes Carry Us After Death to a New Host, 2013

On my trip to Northern G. I became suddenly sleepless. I usually sleep during the day and walk during the night, with a small headlight tied to my cap. I must also let you know that I suffer from prosopagnosia, which prevents me from recognising and remembering faces, including the face of my mother which I managed to see only once, during our vacations in France, when she forced me to join her on a bike ride to the market to buy some local herbs. As many southerners, especially those who suffer, like the rest of my family, from minor retinal malfunction caused by excessive sunlight, I am an exceptionally good sniffer. My olfactory bulbs are grape-large and you could possibly see them if you were to shine light straight into my nostrils avoiding the glue-like grey snot that clogs my nose frequently (and, frankly speaking, thankfully!) during my visits to the North.

Insomniac and feeling completely out of sorts, I combed the city, populated by faceless northerners, touching from time to time my wallet to make sure that I lost neither money nor my identity card. Being slightly lightheaded, I tried to recall yesterday’s conversation with my former classmate Jens B. from boarding school in Lausanne. Back in our young days, both of us, embarrassed by the random secretions and puffiness of our bodies, were longing for change and spent hours marvelling at books describing cyborg-type men conquering high mountains or sipping wine somewhere South. Our favourite teacher at that time was Jochen S., who in addition to running a regular biology tutorial, was a passionate scholar of bionics. Bionics (also known as biomimicry or bio-inspiration—I try to avoid the latter term when in Northern G. because of the locals’ violent avidity for the suffix) is the application of biological methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology (I am quoting Wikipedia looking at my cell phone, as I find my own thoughts and definitions insufficiently precise due to insomnia).

It turned out that Jochen S. was an illegitimate son of Jack E. Steele, who coined the term bionics. Jack, who passed away in 2009, did not know that he had a son. Jochen was a product of an adventurous experiment by Jack and his Swiss cousin Olivia W. with Jack’s semen, which he attempted to preserve in what Jack has seen as a bionic equivalent of spermatheca. For those of you who do not know the meaning of this term, I would like to say that ant queens obtain their lifetime supply of sperm on a single mating flight. When the queen succeeds in establishing a colony she may live for several decades, whereas males die the day of mating but “survive” as stored sperm. Queens never re-mate later in life. “How can you possibly not know about this?” I frequently asked my faceless lovers. They were not ashamed, I could have guessed from their smell.

Jack and Olivia were working with the Panamanian leaf-cutting ant A. colombica, which are among the most long-lived and fertile insects known. Queens store up to several hundred million sperm, usually from two or three males. After dispersal and mating they dig a burrow and seal it. Soon afterwards they lay their first eggs and start building a fungus garden from a fragment of mycelium that they take along from their maternal colony. In the months to follow, they nurse their brood and incipient fungus garden with trophic eggs and faecal droplets, while recycling their flight-muscle proteins and abdominal fat reserves until the first workers eclose and start foraging (I should, perhaps, send this note to my uncle George from Athens?). Once founding colonies have reached this stage, they may grow to contain several million workers and produce yearly clutches of thousands of winged new queens and males until they die, one or several decades later. Daniel K., who studies ant biology at the Rockefeller University in New York, told me that inside, the sperm cells are constantly moving like believers around the Kaaba in Mecca. We do not know yet what kind of signal supports sperm survival both intrinsically and extrinsically, or how it all works for millions of cells and for thousands of days. I wonder whether Stalin considered himself an ant queen with millions of gulag workers and their rotating predators moving inside his bloated belly just to make more of the same breed of pale insectoids.

Alexander Tarakhovsky, Bionic Sperm Storage, 2013 -Alexander Tarakhovsky, Olfactory Bulb, 2013


Alexander Tarakhovsky, Microbiota and Emotions, 2013 – Alexander Tarakhovsky, Microbiota and Sex, 2013

Jack and Olivia were infatuated with the idea of bionic reproduction and clearly succeeded in imitating A. colombica by letting Jack’s semen flow through fungus beds and into tiny adenosine-5’- triphospahte (ATP) soaked celluloid jars in their apartment on Rue de l’Avenir, right in a middle of Lausanne. Jack built a neat storage space where he kept his sperm alive for more than eight years before he decided to join the US Air Force. Devastated by Jack’s looming departure Olivia broke into the store and inseminated herself in what is and will perhaps forever remain the only successful case of long-term storage of living human sperm.

How annoying it is to stay awake and walk through streets that smell like yeast or yeast mixed with cannabis near the cathedral that borders the train station. Yuri M., a Russian aluminium don’s son who studied with me in Lausanne, started to smell like yeast about two months after his arrival. Yuri suffered from excessive perspiration that became particularly severe when, after drinking few beers, he started meddling with stories about Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, who besides being a prolific designer of space rockets was inspired by bouts of violent sex with conjoined twins who were kept in an orphanage next to the Tsiolkovskys’ residence in Kaluga about 200 miles southwest of Moscow.

I finally recalled my conversation with Jens B. and even found a few sloppily sketched notes in my notebook. Jens told me about differences in cerebral metabolome of germ-free (GF) mice and ex-GF mice inoculated with suspension of faeces obtained from specific pathogen-free mice. Jen’s wife Eva used CE-identified 196 metabolites from the cerebral metabolome in both GF and ex-GF mice. The concentrations of 38 metabolites differed significantly (p < 0.05) between GF and ex-GF mice. Approximately ten of these metabolites are known to be involved in brain functions, while the functions of the remainder are unclear. Jens and Eva became

convinced that cerebral metabolites are influenced by normal intestinal microbiota through the microbiota-gut-brain troika, and that normal intestinal microbiota is closely connected with brain health and disease, and with learning, memory and behaviour.

Gluttony of the South, where kids learn to kiss by inserting their tongues into tomato flesh! What kind of bugs do they get? Are the tensely silent evenings, smothered by olives and chewy bread, nothing more than a petri dish for bacteria that trigger memories of times long gone? Was Oblomov’s cosmic laziness and lack of drive to improve what he considered a hopelessly lost universe of faceless engineers all because of bacteria on his rural estate, bacteria carried on the wings of sleepy summer flies on their way from barns to shelter behind heavy curtains where winter dust has been molded into shapes of flies from last year, flies long gone to Keplers but remaining as tweets on the web?

The other day I visited the Pascha just around the corner from the Tierschutzamt that deals with the protection of animals, including mice shipped to Jens for the study of bacteria and depression. The smell of yeast has mixed with the viral flavour of exhausted semen coagulated like blood clots in the throats of Moldavian prostitutes. The pale plates of faces were assorted randomly in a corridor when I entered the room, recognised by the number and playfully scripted name. The sound of the circular highway that runs through the city like a coronary catheter was almost gone. The room was very lightly scented with vinegar and good perfume. The owner of the smell was somewhere around and I could not wait to bury my face, which I have never seen and will never recognise, inside the wetness of the Slavic ravine, the damp of all of the lost tales and unfulfilled dreams of coed field trips, just to escape the smell of yeast that was clouding the city at dusk, protruding above the ugly painted scaffolds and going all the way down to the sputum-like curve of the morbidly grey river.

Alexander Tarakhovsky, Untitled, 2013

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