Friday, January 14, 2011

The Wonders of Bacteria and Viruses, a Civic Soapbox essay by Denise Zito

Martha note: It's Civic Soapbox Friday. 
Though I’ve spent much of my career in medical laboratories and related industry, I was knocked flat last month at a scientific meeting when reminded that the human body is composed of ten percent human cells and ninety percent bacterial cells. Ninety percent! Remember, we’re not talking weight or volume, but simply numbers.
I was listening to a lecture about how the intestinal bacteria, or as the medical community calls them -- gut flora -- may play a role in diabetes, a condition affecting more and more Americans and citizens world-wide. It seems that the particular mix of bacteria in the intestine may be linked somehow to developing diabetes.

That interesting idea lead me to reflect about the way our own human genetic makeup and our vast microbial partners are intimately related, just the way a sprig of mistletoe depends on the tree, and the way the mushroom depends on the stump.

Contemporary America has declared war on bacteria. Everywhere you look there are anti-bacterial soaps and wipes. I’m fairly certain that most people just aren’t aware of how dependent we are on this wonderful life-form. Yes, most realize that cheese and beer and wine and sauerkraut are all made by the actions of bacteria. But does everyone also know that our immune system, through protective skin bacteria and the digestion of our food, are intimately dependent upon useful bacteria?

We’re also part and parcel of viruses. In order to live, a virus must insert itself into a living cell (often this is us), and even if our immune system clears the bug and we recover, the virus leaves behind a snippet of itself in our cells.

Thinking about this made me ponder exactly what it means to be human. We are woven with viral particles and living permanently with a swarm of helpful bacterial neighbors. Talk about an ecological moment! It’s wondrous really.

When antibiotics were developed and came into widespread use, they were a real lifesaver and improved health by eliminating many diseases and preventing a lot of suffering. More recently we’ve become perhaps overly dependent on these drugs and have them prescribed for every sore throat and ear infection, though most don’t benefit because the drugs don’t work against viruses. There are a lot of people who become impatient with their doctors and demand these drugs even when they aren’t indicated.

We’ve been warned that the over use of antibiotics leads to resistant strains, meaning bacteria that aren’t killed by our current drugs and have morphed into super-bugs that require more expensive and stronger drugs to control them. And those drugs are also killing many of our useful bacteria.

So today, I invite you to turn your thoughts to the fact that we humans are complex organisms and live in an intimate neighborhood with important bacterial partners. It’s a delicate balance of mostly peaceful coexistence with billions of fellow beings. It’s an amazing reality.
 --Denise Zito lives in community with bacteria on her small farm in Free Union.