Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Making Friends with Microbes

This, my first sourdough bread, could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Are you afraid of animals?

What about plants?

I would not want to be at the mercy of a great white shark, and I never intend to wipe my face with poison ivy. But I have never met anyone who is categorically afraid of either plants or animals. However I cannot say the same for microorganisms, whether bacteria, fungi, or protozoa; it is not uncommon for an adult to express an unqualified aversion to them.

The prototypical pathological beahvior I am thinking of is the compulsive use of Purell hand sanitizer. I want to know how big of a party they threw at Purell headquarters when the H1N1 virus came out a couple of years ago. All of a sudden the dispensers were ubiquitous in public places, the implication being that using Purel was an extra layer of precaution on top of using soap and water when leaving the bathroom. Enter a room, use Purel. You won't get sick that way.

Of course, pathogenic microbes present a serious danger, significantly greater than that presented by predatory animals or poisonous plants. And basic sanitary practices developed in light of our understanding of microbes go a long way toward keeping us alive and healthy well into our old age. But we should not let a few rotten apples ruin our perception of the whole bushel.

The vast majority of microbes we encounter are benign, and we even depend on many in order to live. Bacterial cells within us actually outnumber our own cells by a good margin (they are much smaller), and they help us by assisting in digestion, by keeping the bad guys from getting a foothold, and by who knows what else. So when I think about microbes I think more of the good guys, or at least the indifferent guys, and I actively cultivate (no pun intended) a positive relationship with them. For example, I know this is controversial but rather than cooking the good with the bad in my milk, I buy milk from trusted farmers who take good care of their cows. Then I drink it raw, thinking fondly of the good work the associated bacteria will do in me.

I even keep microbes as pets. While my housemates have a dog abd others keep potted plants, I have on our kitchen counter a little colony of yeast and bacteria. Every morning I feed them some flour and some water and in return every few days they flavor and leaven my bread. I am still getting the hang of it, but I am new to this and all pet ownership is touch and go at first.

I realize that I may be too credulous, and like an owner of a Burmese python my trust may one day come back to bite me. But I would rather not overstep sensible habits like washing my hands with soap and in so doing put myself in opposition to the whole weight of no less than three taxonomic kingdoms.

People are meant to live as part of an ecosystem of flora and fauna, both micro- and mega-, and not as atoms in a sea of sterility. When we attempt to inabit the latter we come out less healthy because our bodies are simply not designed for such a context. What's more we dilute our weaponry when we use it indiscriminately against all things microscopic and not just against the bad guys.

In short, there is a such thing as too much caution when it comes to our invisible and ever-present companions. We have much to gain by acknowledging and cultivating a right relationship with them, even while maintaining proper vigilance against those who would destroy us.

I hate virsuses though. Get me away from viruses. They freak me out.