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.


Katherine Koba said...

What I never got with the H1N1 and then the hand sanitizers was: aren't all these sanitizers anti-bacterial? And isn't the flu a virus? And airborne, at that? Am I missing some science, here?

Nicholas said...


Well, those sanitizers rely on good old-fashioned ethanol to kill germs, so they aren't exclusively antibacterial. But since you mentioned it I found on the wikipedia article for Purell:

"Alcohol based hand sanitizers are poor at killing viruses. ABC News reported: 'Water removed 96 percent of the virus; liquid antibacterial soap removed 88 percent; and the hand sanitizer removed only 46 percent.'"

Also from wikipedia, the influenza article says:

"Typically, influenza is transmitted through the air by coughs or sneezes." [influenza article]

So it would seem you are quite correct!

Lisa Sims said...

I would like to start making my own yogurt at some point. I think I just need to start with some active cultures and from there I can start my first batch. The price of a little container of Greek yogurt is my main motivation! As for Purell, I have to admit I keep some in my purse for those occasions where I eat out. It saves a trip to the bathroom to "wash up" before I eat. I think the media are responsible for the proliferation of sanitizer everywhere, specifically when they air stories about studies that show how much bacteria they find on shopping carts at the grocery store ...

Nicholas said...

Aunt Lisa, I made Greek yogurt once. You can do it pretty low-tech. You heat some milk a certain way, for which having a thermometer is handy but not necessary, and you add cultures, which can either be ordered online or you can just use some sturdy live-culture yogurt you buy. Then put it in glass quart jars (or whatever) and pack in a cooler with towels, and once a day pour in hot water for a few days until it's the desired thickness.

To make it "Greek," when it's done you strain it through a cheesecloth and the whey comes out.

When I made it the yogurt wasn't quite as thick as you'd like, but it was still delicious with granola or fruit. And it's easy to do a half-gallon or gallon in one go.

SFK said...

A few interesting case studies come to mind that fall along the same topic.

H. Pylori- A bacteria that naturally resides in us, but was also found to cause stomach ulcers and even cancer. We now have ways to detect and eradicate it, which was actually a pretty important medical discovery and is used on a daily basis in clinics (as opposed to being very rare).

Probiotics- These are marketed under the guise of being in line with some of your thinking here. They aim to restore and maintain natural GI flora. For the most part, I am strongly against probiotics in pill form. There are some foods that can provide the same effect, but mostly I find it is just a scam to get health conscious people to buy something new.

Agreed, though, that by and large viruses are nasty.

Paul B. said...

To elaborate on my microbe thoughts (now that I can easily take advantage of the text box using the awesome power of a keyboard & PC):

1) Recently read about our natural GI flora. Apparently the bacteria in our digestive tracts have a large influence on our health. This is one of the reasons yogurt (with active cultures!) & products like Yakult are increasing in popularity. I've heard some people suffer grave health effects after heavy antibiotic regimens because the antibiotic indiscriminately kills good bugs in your gut as easily as it kills the bad ones in your body. I agree with SFK that a pill is not the best recourse.
2) Hand sanitizers-- the unintended consequences. Eventually we'll create superbugs resistant to the ethanol. Then what?
3) The irrational need to keep babies from ever contacting bacteria. They need exposure to build up resistance. Parents are not doing them any favors by raising them in aseptic environments, as they will suffer even more when older and confronted with very pedestrian bugs.
4) Read recently about the bacteria in women's wombs-- and how that has shaped all of humanity. Pretty interesting!

Microbes are certainly MY friend!

Ben said...

Most people don't have a habit of eating their pets, even when they're really tasty.

Unknown said...

I'm late to the game here, but just a few thoughts from a healthcare professional:

Today I lost a lot of faith in Wikipedia. Let me explain: I don't have any specific sources to back this up, but current thinking is that influenza and the common cold are most frequently transmitted by contact, that is, your hands. To actually get infected, the virus has to come in contact with the mucous membranes in your nasal passages. So the most common way to catch a respiratory virus is for an infected person to sneeze or cough on their hands and later touch something like a doorknob. You then touch the doorknob and later itch your nose or rub your eyes. If someone sneezes on your face this might achieve the same effect, but sneezing in the same room as you seems to be relatively benign.

"BUT WAIT!" you say. "what of the SCIENTIFIC ARTICLE that wikipedia CITED in it's influenza article?"

Well I had the same thought and followed the link to do some investigation. Allow me to quote from the abstract:

"Despite vast clinical experience in human beings, there continues to be much debate about how influenza is transmitted… However, we are able to conclude that transmission occurs at close range rather than over long distances, suggesting that airborne transmission, as traditionally defined, is unlikely to be of significance in most clinical settings."

So maybe there is a section in the article itself (which I don't have access to) which says that in the community setting airborn transmission is significant, but I doubt it.

Long story short: during flu season or when you're around a sick person, clean your hands one way or another. I think the strength of Purell is it's easy of use, which encourages more frequent hand hygiene, but it's true it doesn't work as well as the mechanical action of soap and water.