Saturday, January 5, 2013

Interlude - 2

In the post Interlude there was an emphasis on the issue of not blaming microbes of every sort for the behavior of a few pathogens that also tend to be parasitic.

There is a world of history that counsels us in this direction, mainly involving the discovery that even microbes with bad behavior at times also have good behavior that helps us.

The exercise, then, is to find out what happened to the good microbes that caused them to become involved in some pathogenic behavior.

There are examples in the history of medicine and science where our culture has caused not only microbes to become pathogens, but culture has sometimes even caused people to become destructive to life.

The example to be used in support of today's post is the microbe Helicobacter pylori:
Helicobacter pylori may be the most successful pathogen in human history. While not as deadly as the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, cholera, and the plague, it infects more people than all the others combined. H. pylori, which migrated out of Africa along with our ancestors, has been intertwined with our species for at least two hundred thousand years. Although the bacterium occupies half the stomachs on earth, its role in our lives was never clear. Then, in 1982, to the astonishment of the medical world, two scientists, Barry Marshall and J. Robin Warren, discovered that H. pylori is the principal cause of gastritis and peptic ulcers; it has since been associated with an increased risk of stomach cancer as well.
(Germs Are Us, New Yorker). The author of that piece, Michael Specter, goes on to point out that we went overboard once that factoid was discovered:
The consensus was clear; as one prominent gastroenterologist wrote in 1997, “The only good Helicobacter pylori is a dead Helicobacter pylori.” Eradication proved complicated and expensive, however, and the effort never gained momentum. Yet few scientists questioned the goal. “Helicobacter was a cause of cancer and of ulcers,’’ Martin J. Blaser, the chairman of the Department of Medicine and a professor of microbiology at the New York University School of Medicine, told me recently. “It was bad for us. So the idea was to get it out of our bodies, as fast as we can. I don’t know of anyone who said, Gee, we better think about the consequences.”
(ibid, emphasis added). Eradication without understanding is risky business, as we have seen over and over in the history of human interaction with the environment.

Predators are sometimes overkilled, then we suffer the consequences because we then have lost the moderating role that predators play.

The same dynamic applies to the relatively few microbe species that become pathogenic for some reason or another, and it even applies to the microbe Helicobacter pylori:
No one was more eager to rout the organism from the human gut than Blaser, who has devoted most of his working life to the study of H. pylori. His laboratory at N.Y.U. developed the first standard blood tests to identify the microbe, and most of them are commonly in use today. But Blaser, a restless intellect who, in addition to his medical duties, helped start the Bellevue Literary Review, wondered how an organism as old as humans could survive if it caused nothing but harm. “That isn’t how evolution works,” he said. “H. pylori is an ancestral component of humanity.” By the nineteen-nineties, Blaser had begun to look more closely at the bacterium’s molecular behavior, and in 1998 he published a paper in the British Medical Journal suggesting, contrary to prevailing views, that it might not be so dangerous after all. The following year, he started the Foundation for Bacteriology, to help focus attention on the critical, and usually positive, role that these organisms play in human evolution.
(ibid, emphasis added). Blaser goes on to tie research into the new understanding:
In the past decade, however, aided by the rapidly escalating power of computer processing and by the same revolution in DNA-sequencing technology that made it possible to map our genome, another truth has emerged: while our health is certainly influenced by genes, it may be affected even more powerfully by bacteria.

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. By the time a child can crawl, he has been blanketed by an enormous, unseen cloud of microorganisms—a hundred trillion or more. They are bacteria, mostly, but also viruses and fungi (including a variety of yeasts), and they come at us from all directions: other people, food, furniture, clothing, cars, buildings, trees, pets, even the air we breathe. They congregate in our digestive systems and our mouths, fill the space between our teeth, cover our skin, and line our throats. We are inhabited by as many as ten thousand bacterial species; these [microbe] 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.

“I love genetics,” Blaser said. “But the model that places our genes at the root of all human development is wrong ..."
(ibid, emphasis added). Regular readers know that this blog and its co-blogs have been aware of the revolution that has taken place in microbiology and genetics, and has been informing readers of those developments (see e.g. Microbial Hermeneutics, The "It's In Your Genes" Myth, Hypothesis: Microbes Generate Toxins of Power, and On The New Meaning of "Human").

In conclusion of this post, when we study the affects of power on those in the seats of power, we use the same approach that should be used in the study of microbes.

That is, one does not condemn all people in power because of the corruption that the few succumb to, rather, one focuses on the bulls-eye to find the cause, then apply a remedy to that situation, to that person in power, and more specifically, to the microbial, viral, or other source of the toxins of power that infect them.

Likewise, we want to find out how the toxins of power originate so as to treat only the area of the problem, not to massively destroy good microbes along with the malfunctioning microbes:
The passengers in our microbiome contain at least four million genes, and they work constantly on our behalf: they manufacture vitamins and patrol our guts to prevent infections; they help to form and bolster our immune systems, and digest food. Recent research suggests that bacteria may even alter our brain chemistry, thus affecting our moods and behavior.
(ibid). In fact, the goal should ultimately be to learn how to repair any malfunctioning microbes so that they become stronger to the point of being immune from future malfunction that may once again attempt to produce toxins of power.

The previous post in this series is here.

1 comment:

Randy said...

Some progress is being made in the understanding that microbes are good: Link