Friday, November 25, 2011

Infection Connection: We Are Living in a Bacterial World

Good Germs, Bad GermsAnd I am a bacterial girl. (Go ahead...sing it! You know you want to!)

This week, I finished the book Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a Bacterial World by Jessica Snyder Sachs. Whether you’re on the job or just have a passing interest, this is a truly fascinating book.

Sachs writes about our long, strange trip with bacteria and other microorganisms. Some might think that it’s a simple matter to realize that bacteria are bad, and the proliferation of antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers makes it obvious that such a message has caught on. It’s much more complicated than that. Sachs mentions what Nobel prize-winning molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg calls the “microbiome.” Lederberg says, “It would broaden our horizons if we started thinking of a human as more than a single organism. It is a superorganism that includes much more than our human cells.”

Essentially, each of us is a walking, talking ecosystem, carting around millions of bacteria that most often protect us, but sometimes harm us. From the moment we are born, we begin developing our occupying microflora, including Staph epidermidis and coryneform bacteria on our skin, Strep salivarius on our teeth, E coli in our gut, and Lactobacillus in our vagina (if you happen to have one, that is). These organisms create protective biofilms that aid in digestion, keep harmful bacteria from getting a toehold, secrete acids that keep the “bad” bacteria at bay, and even send out chemical signals that help regulate our immune system. I find it an incredibly elegant and fascinating system, and I both adore and fear it.

I adore it because it’s obvious that we have co-evolved over millions of years; our microflora coexist peacefully with us in a mutually beneficial relationship. I fear it because it seems to be such a delicate balance, and changing one small part of it can trigger an unpleasant infection, or even a life-threatening one. (Any woman who has taken antibiotics for an infection knows how easily that balance can be upset; it’s a common occurrence to have the antibiotics wipe out our usual genital flora like Lactobacillus and have yeast set up camp. Usually not life-threatening, but definitely not pleasant.)

I find the connection between our microbiome and our immune system especially fascinating. (If I hadn’t concentrated on Microbiology, I would have gone into Immunology. I find both very interesting, and they are closely connected.) You’ve probably read about the recent explosion in asthma and food allergies in kids; many researchers are looking into whether or not kids’ immune systems are not being challenged the way they used to. I don’t think anyone (not any rational, thinking person, anyway) would dispute that vaccines for life-threatening infectious diseases are a must; but our world has definitely become a little more sanitized these days, and it is not necessarily for our protection.

It might seem to be a paradox, but an unchallenged immune system can go into hyperdrive all too easily. When we’ve been exposed to minimal allergens, the presence of an unexpected one can wreak havoc as the immune system summons the troops and engages in a campaign of shock and awe against all invaders. A veritable monsoon of cytokines, interleukins, and other immune-boosting or immune-suppressing chemicals are loosed upon unsuspecting cells; if the immune system mistakenly attacks our own healthy cells or tissues, auto-immune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, and Sjögren’s syndrome can result.

Agar platesMy relationship with microorganisms has always been a love/hate one. I loved my job, and I loved the “detective work” aspect of it, but I hated the devastation and mortality I saw. I am fascinated by their mechanisms of resistance (one of them is called an efflux pump, in which the bacteria take in an antibiotic within its cell walls and immediately pump it right back out...I picture a sailor frantically bailing out a leaky boat), but worry about how that resistance is resulting in literally untreatable infections. Sachs quotes Rockefeller University researcher Vincent Fischetti concerning bacterial antibiotic resistance: “Don’t ever underestimate bacteria.” I recognize the relationship for what it is, but each of you also has a love-hate relationship with your own microflora, whether you realize it or not.

When it comes to the “war on bacteria,” it seems that we would benefit the most from an uneasy détente. When it comes to preventing what can be devastating infectious diseases like measles, bacterial meningitis, diphtheria, and so many others, vaccines are good things. But it is pointless—and perhaps even dangerous—to believe that a sterile world is beneficial or even possible. The vast majority of bacteria that we encounter in our daily lives is not going to go after us (except for those who are immunocompromised...that is a very dangerous state to be in), as long as we keep ourselves fairly healthy, with our microbiome in general balance. Maybe it’s wise to not mobilize weapons of mass destruction against the critters we encounter every day; a little soap and water is usually going to be enough to keep our own private ecosystem in balance.

Good luck, and hey...let’s be careful out there.

♪ ♫ Bugs may come and bugs may go, and that’s all right, you see. Experience has made me rich, and now they’re after me...’cause we are living in a bacterial world....♪ ♫


  1. I think that our youth is to sheltered these days, I remember the days of playing in the dirt, riding my bike for miles, rolling in the grass...

    We were exposed to so much more, and perhaps that strengthened our immune systems.

  2. Ditto Bucko... I steadfastly believe that I have not fell prey to any great illness (knock on wood and save for a case of meningitis as a teen) because I was allowed to deal with the world, sans anti micro this 'n that...

    But I think that this speaks to a larger problem that has plagued my thoughts since my youth... man has not truly 'evolve' yet life around him has... if you want to make the claim that he has, check back with me when someone runs the 100-meters in less than 9 seconds...

    ... we have removed ourselves from the natural world, in a biological sense... and I can easily envision a world where the ultra rich live truly separated from the poor, not only because of money but because for them to live they have to retreat from the earth... this will make them less inclined to worry about the environment as they live in their engineered bio-spheres...

    ...or something like that... anywho, we as a species have become too preoccupied with cleanliness when it may not be that necessary...

  3. Such an interesting dilemma. When I think back to my childhood in the 50's, we were all over the place. We didn't think about washing our hands except before dinner, were always outside, and never used anything anti-bacterial and really never took antibiotics, but that is because we seldom got sick. Oh yeah, we also never thought about drinking water and never wore special running or walking shoes. I'm 64 and have never been really sick until recently and I now always think about drinking water, special shoes, and anti-bacterial soaps, etc.

  4. I'm pretty much opposed to the anti-bacterial products that are out today. I recognize that we carry helpful bacteria. I also recognize that our immune systems build antibodies when exposed to new things. Every winter my coworkers pass around a bunch of stuff. I argue that my years of teaching exposed me to a lot of stuff. I did get sick my first year teaching by the way.

    What scares me are the super bacteria that have resulted because people don't think they don't have to complete their antibiotic regimen. Rates right up there with people who don't believe in immunizations.

  5. I remember making jam and jelly and sealing it with paraffin, not pressure canning pickles and other acidy products, eating things with raw eggs and flour and having the bacon grease jar on the stove- Never made me sick. Now I worry all the time about safety and cleanliness and all I get is really dry hands and no fun while making cookies! LOL
    Howie and Matt seem to be the norm- still I don't carry antibacterial lotions just use soap and water!

  6. I love the new lyrics on the Bacterial World.
    It makes me crazy to see all these "sterilizers" out there. People needlessly and constantly taking squirts of jell and rubbing the stuff into their hands, and removing valuable fauna from their soon to be immune deficient skin. Once again, another example of how businesses, in order to get more profits, send us these messages about how dirty and disease ridden everything is. It's crazy. I have seen people walking around stores with surgical masks on. I always hope they are the sick ones, but can't help but believe they are just afraid of catching "germs" from someone else.
    More separation of reality from societal norms.
    Boy, I wish we would learn to think and analyze for ourselves. It would make life so much easier. And I could carry on a conversation with someone without b@tching and frothing. :)
    Good post.

  7. Ditto, Ditto, Bucko!

    We all need to go out and play more!


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