Sunday, October 13, 2013

Tough Nouggies

I'm sure, with all of this "alarming" news about microbes I post, people are asking themselves, "Gee whiz. How can it be that bad? Aren't bacteria and other microscopic life forms pretty tough?"

Well, you're right. they are very tough. Microbes are some of the most resilient and adaptive life forms on earth. So tough and adaptive, as it happens, that they can survive at extreme temperatures and pressures on both ends of the spectrum- from the freezing cold, pitch-black lakes and frozen deserts of Antarctica to the extremophiles that live at undersea volcanic vents.

They are, in other words, incredibly tough, so tough that the idea they could survive the conditions in outer space is entirely credible. This worries Mars lander scientists so much that they go to incredible lengths to sterilize the landers before launching them—and still, no matter how hard they try, scientists are afraid that our own bacteria will ultimately end up anywhere we send spacecraft, and possibly survive to contaminate it.

Despite this fact, the issue isn't so much that bacteria are or are not tough. The issue is whether or not the bacteria we need and depend on are tough enough to survive the insults we are delivering to them without a fundamental alteration of the biosphere conditions we need for our own survival.

The bacteria, in one form or another, will survive. That's sure enough. But with enough changes, the bacteria that support the macrobiotic life forms (including us) may no longer fulfill the functions they once did; or, they may cause subtle and deeply undesirable changes such as physiological and psychological diseases which don't appear, at first glance, to be associated with microbial disruption.

Our state of mind itself depends on microbes. This may seem like a ridiculous proposition at first glance, but before you render judgment, read this article about how mice behave when inoculated with alternative gut bacteria strains. It may be, in other words, that some of the psychological deficits we are seeing on the increase in modern societies are a direct result of gut bacteria disruptions.

Microbes don't have to die off to cause us problems; they just have to change. One small mutation in the makeup of a bacterial population can cause it to stop (or start) secreting a hormone that either can't do its job any more, or triggers problems no one could foresee. The migration of gut bacteria populations all over the globe has undoubtedly already had some effects of this kind. How do we know that the increase in random acts of terror violence isn't actually due to some bacteria that causes deep seated, conspiracy-prone paranoia? We don't, and it's chilling to think that the virulence and vehemency of this kind of behavior may be a communicable disease— that is, a microbial infection.

It's not a ridiculous suggestion. It may, in fact, be closer to the truth than anyone dares admit... it may be that a real zombie plague is already with us, and we just don't know it.

In some ways, the whole problem is that bacteria are tough. They take everything we can throw at them... mutate a little bit... and on they go. Changed, they no longer produce the predictable, more or less stable (actually, nothing is ever stable, but that's another subject) results we have come to expect from them. Run-of-the-mill friendly bacteria like E. coli become, by random accident, predatory killers; bacteria we can usually fight off like Staphylococcus aureus morph into nightmare bugs causing, among other things. toxic shock syndrome. All by accident, mind you; from the bacteria's point of view, they don't intend to poison us or kill us. It just works out that way.

Bacteria and other microorganisms are, basically, indestructible, at least in the big picture. We may think we rule the world; but in reality we live in a world ruled by them, where we are outnumbered trillions upon trillions to one. The fact that they are small is nearly immaterial; when it comes to niche, environment, hazards, and survivability, our size is a liability. Size matters; and nature has proven again and again that when push comes to shove, smaller creatures which reproduce faster have far better odds of survival than big ones who reproduce slowly.

So it's not the meek, strictly speaking, that will inherit the earth; it's the micro.

Respect is due.

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