Sunday, January 20, 2013

More on bacteria and a new way to talk about them

I find, to my amazement, that I did not make a single post here in all of 2012, although not for a lack of interesting topics. Since 2013 promises more of the same, I hope to do a little better this year.

However, I'm starting the year off by returning to a post from 2011 about the unintended consequences of our misperceptions about bacteria. Here's an excerpt from that post:

The medical profession has begun to recognize the negative consequences of trying to eradicate pathogens, such as "super-bugs" and rapidly evolving drug-resistant forms. This article describes another, less obvious but potentially more severe consequence--the permanent loss of strains of beneficial bacteria, which could contribute to the rising incidence of diabetes, bowel disease, asthma and obesity. 

Since that post, the research on bacteria has progressed significantly. We now have the term "microbiome" that encompasses the various colonies of microbes that we acquire over our lifetimes.

In a rational world, the microbiome might turn out to be the number one cover story for 2013. An October 2012 article in the New Yorker magazine notes that our bodies harbor more bacteria cells than body cells and provides ample examples of how these fundamental and balanced colonies sustain our health far more than they harm it. And the process starts right at the beginning of life:

We inherit every one of our genes, but we leave the womb without a single microbe. As we pass through our mother’s birth canal, we begin to attract entire colonies of bacteria. 

and by the time we reach adulthood:

[w]e are inhabited by as many as ten thousand bacterial species; these cells outnumber those which we consider our own by ten to one, and weigh, all told, about three pounds—the same as our brain. Together, they are referred to as our microbiome—and they play such a crucial role in our lives that scientists like Blaser have begun to reconsider what it means to be human.

This "reconsidering" will require a fundamental change in how we think about health, and I'm not sure how long it might take for that change to reach day-to-day understanding. Largely through the efforts of scientists from the past two centuries, the large majority of the world's population have finally come to thoroughly embrace the simple encomium that "bacteria are bad." Thanks to modern advertising and the impulses of capitalism, we each have access to an overwhelming arsenal of antibacterial products to protect ourselves from the relentless onslaught of rampant nature. We also have increasing susceptibility to asthma, obesity, and MRSA. The New Yorker article suggests the potential for new treatments based solely on the regulation and reintroduction of healthy colonies of microbes. It sounds quite new-age-y, but these "miracle" cures have solid science behind them

And along with the new approaches to treatment, science faces an additional challenge--how do we dial back the fears of the average human and encourage people to embrace a new paradigm in which we LOVE our bacteria and take steps to husband and protect the various health-giving commensals that inhabit every square centimeter of our bodies? Perhaps that's one benefit of the new term, microbiome. It gives us a handle that does not immediately conjure up the now-entrenched bias we acquire from our mothers along with the load of microbes.

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