For All the Good They Do: Microbes in Perspective

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They’re on your skin, in your gut, under your nails. The vegetables in your garden cohabit peacefully with them. They dwell in the intestines of cows, exchanging the ability to digest cellulose for sanctuary from the cruel outdoors. In the air, on the land, even in the harshest, most extreme parts of the world where angels fear to tread, they make up more than two thirds of the world’s mass – and yet people are generally ignorant of their existence or, at best, have thoroughly warped notions of the role they play in the big drama of life.

We are, of course, talking about microorganisms.

What are microorganisms? To put things loosely – living creatures that are too small to be seen by the naked eye. The term ‘microorganism’ covers two groups of creatures: the prokaryotes (bacteria – organisms with no nuclei in their cells, and resemble ancestral microbes that crawled out of the primordial soup) and the eukaryotic microorganisms (microscopic organisms with ‘true’ nucleated cells, such as protoctists, algae and fungi. Humans, cows, plants, and every other living creature you can see fall into this category, only they are macroscopic).

The role microorganisms play in the environment is enormous – indeed, the world could not possibly last long in the absence of microorganisms. It is these creatures that are responsible for clearing away the debris on this stage of life to make way for new sets and new props, for generating and recycling most of the chemicals that would otherwise be lost to the ecosystem through biological processes, even as the catalysts of the evolution that is so crucial to life. It is highly unfortunate, therefore, that the primary and secondary education system has all but neglected them in favour of the macroscopic minority that are the plants and animals that are more easily seen by the casual observer.

But microorganisms have been here for millions of years before the first multicellular creature crawled out of the primordial soup, and will probably be here long after all other life has been exhausted or extinguished. It is therefore time to put the importance of microorganisms back into prospective, and to acknowledge them for their positive contribution towards the continuity of this thing we call life.

Microbes and Planet Earth

Long before dinosaurs ruled the world and man came forth and built his concrete jungles and satellites, back in a time where the earth was still burning off the heat of its creation and geysers and volcanoes gushed aplenty, and there were no two- or four- or multi-legged beasts or woody plants forming complex ecosystems on Earth, there were – microbes. These were the descendants of the simple replicating machines that rose out of the rich primordial soup that covered most of earth – strings of DNA or RNA that were in small protective sheaths, and had ‘discovered’ how to make copies of themselves out of the raw material from which they themselves were made.

Centuries after Charles Darwin put forth his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species, many people still reject outright the notion that we, superior beings of this world, have ancestors as humble, as lowly as the tiny blind one-celled creatures who teemed in the organic soup more than three billion years ago. In many cases it may be that we cannot imagine being related to the microscopic lifeform of today, who lie ignored except where they can be blamed for everything from disease to destruction.

Yet the fact remains that many of the structures in the cells of a multicellular entity were, many millions of years ago, independent life-forms that had been engulfed by bigger primordial cells, but somehow managed to make a living with them instead of getting eaten. Later, these primordial cells had come together by accident, and where there was mutual benefit, formed permanent unions. Specialization evolved over time as different cells came together, tasks divided between them. Eventually they formed multicellular organisms which grew steadily more complex as they adapted to their environment, differentiated, and evolved into what we all are today*.

Microbes and the consumer market

Mankind has learnt to harness the power of microbes in the production of food long before Anton van Leeuwenhoek gazed into his first crude microscope. The relationship between brewers and yeast began over six thousand years ago in Mesopotamia. Around four thousand years later, people discovered fermented curds in their milk pouches, and the cheese industry was born. Rome had a booming cheese industry, and later so did European abbeys, most of which had their own secret recipes.

Today, it is impossible to not to find microorganisms in the heart of industry. The versatile baker’s yeast is not only used in bread-making, but also in the production of alcoholic drinks. Lactobacillus acidolphilus is a common name in the household – who has not heard of it, since its name appears in practically every yoghurt commercial? Swiss cheese would not be Swiss cheese without the fermenting bacteria Propionibacterium, nor would blue cheese and Roquefort have their pungent smell and sharp taste without Penicillium, a cousin of the famous penicillin mold.

Vitamins, used as supplements for human food and animal feeds, are also produced commercially using a host of bacteria, yeasts and fungi. Important food flavourings such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) and the artificial sweetener aspartame rely heavily on the fermentation process of microbes such as brevibacteria. We would never have had vinegar for our salads if not for our famous baker’s yeast and a host of anaerobic bacteria fermenting carbohydrates to acid. One microbe’s waste is another man’s food.

In the medical industry, genetically-modified bacteria are engineered to carry the gene for insulin, and to produce insulin in bulk for insulin-dependent diabetics. The manufacture of otherwise ludicrously expensive steroids for treating autoimmune disease, alleviate allergies and treate skin diseases depends heavily on microorganisms to transform chemical molecules. Consider the steroid cortisone, which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. This steroid can be produced by non-biological means in the laboratory, converting deoxycholic acid from bile by submitting the starting material to no less than 37 different chemical reactions to produce the steroid. This incredibly tedious procedure had a pathetic yield of 0.15%. The alternative – extracting about 100 milligrams of the steroid from approximately 6,000 heads of cattle – brought the price of the drug to about $200 per gram in the 1940s. Compare this with the production using the mold Rhizopus arrhizus, which requires only six steps to completion, and which brought the price of cortisone down to $6 per gram in the late 40s, and $0.46 by 1980.

Enzymes are catalysts of most chemical and biochemical reactions. Synthesized enzymes would be too costly and impractical in the long run; microorganism-produced enzymes are used instead, being far more useful because they are a great deal more discriminative than chemical catalysts. Microbial enzymes are added to detergents to enhance their power as stain-removers and colour restorers. Others are sold commercially and used to ripen fruit for sale. Be it in the textile or food industry, microbial enzymes are the key. And after all, where would the Coca-Cola industry be if not for these microbes?

But microorganisms are not only important in industry as producers and bioconverters. The latest food fads have introduced a whole variety of algae and fungi as food. Visit any supermarket and you are likely to come across cereal drinks fortified with Spirulina and Chlorella. Some armies, being the thoroughly resourceful forces that they are, feed Torula utilis to their soldiers in bulk. These single-celled protein foods may look unappealing, but many are nutritious, and they are a very good source of protein.

And of course, most of us – and not just hobbits – love mushrooms*.

Microbes and the Magic Bullet

Any decent microbiologist will tell you that fungus on a bacteria culture plate spells nothing short of disaster. There is no greater nightmare than finding happy green patches of mold where colonies of bacteria should be. Alexander Fleming may have felt the same way in 1928, when he entered his laboratory and found them growing on his precious plate of staphylococci. However, we should be grateful that he was calm enough to sit down and observe them, instead of tossing the plate into the wastebasket in cold fury. (we would never have had penicillin if he had!)

Microbes had long since been used in the medical field to treat non-life-threatening conditions. Medical records from China, Egypt and Mesopotamia dating from 1,500 B.C. report the use of moldy and fermented substances from dung and soybean curd to treat superficial wounds and swelling. However, back then, nobody knew the real cause of infectious diseases, and this prevented the booming of the antibiotics industry. In 1874, Englishman William Roberts observed that the growth of bacteria was impeded by fungi and vice versa; later, Louis Pasteur and Jules Francois Joubert noticed that anthrax bacilli refused to grow in the presence of mold.

It wasn’t until after 1928, however, that penicillin and antibiosis were ‘discovered’. Another 12 years or so elapsed before Howard Florey and his collaborators successfully purified penicillin and administered it to a desperately ill police constable*. This was the beginning of the drug’s reputation as the Magic Bullet.

Today, penicillin is no longer as useful as it once was. However, after more than 70 years of research, we now have an enormous selection of antibiotics produced by a wide variety of microorganisms ranging from bacteria to fungi. Many of these antibiotics have been engineered so as to target a wide range of pathogens, and are many times more potent than their humble ancestor, penicillin.

Microbes in biological research

There is a relatively new technology in the field of genetics called Polymerase Chain Reaction. It is, in a nutshell, a process of making copies of pre-existing DNA*. The donor of the enzyme that makes this "photocopying" possible is the humble laboratory pet Escherichia coli, which has a somewhat tarnished reputation thanks to its insane mutant cousins, who have killed many innocent people who ate undercooked beef.

Microorganisms are playing an increasingly huge role in biological research. Bacteria have been engineered to carry genes of other organisms, some of which are transferred to the bacteria by specially-bred viruses. Hybrids are made by coupling fungi that possess a certain trait with those that do not. New combinations of genes are studied. These may sound like hideously cruel things to do to such benign creatures, but it is a necessary step to a greater understanding of genetics.

What is the use of playing around with the genetic content of microorganisms? For one thing, microbes multiply a great deal more rapidly than multicellular animal (also, you would be less likely to feel sorry for them than if you were to play around with the insides of a cow). This enables the researcher to get many copies of a gene – or its products – that has been inserted into, say, a bacteria, in a relatively short period of time. This is how we are currently getting insulin supply for diabetics – by cloning the gene manufacturing insulin into bacteria, and letting them do the dirty job of producing this chemical for us. Many other microorganisms have also been engineered to be more efficient in biotechnology – to produce greater yield in the antibiotics industry, for instance.

The study of microbial genetics – possible because microbial reproduction and multiplication happens so fast – also enables scientists to understand gene function, which is the basis of cell function, and the key to understanding why a great many diseases such as cancer happen. You may argue that the microbes are only playing a passive role in these studies, but if not for them we would still be in the Dark Ages of medicine.

Microbes as symbionts of all living things, and components of the biogeochemical cycle

We are not alone.

Every inch of every surface of our body is covered with microorganisms. Billions of them thrive on our skin. Millions are found elsewhere inside us, predominantly inside our intestines. Everything around us is similarly coated with probably as many cells as there are atoms in the universe. We are, essentially, made of microbes.

But what is there to be afraid of? They have been with us from the moment we were born (colonizing our bodies within the first thirty minutes of birth), and they will be there when we die, to take us apart into useful chemicals to be re-circulated in the environment. And we are not the only ones living with microorganisms. Every other living creature on the face of this earth shares its life with zillions of microscopic neighbours.

The role microbes play as symbionts of living creatures is enormous. What once were microorganisms have through time become integrated into the cells of multicellular life forms, becoming the powerhouses of cells. Microbes in our intestines help produce certain essential vitamins such as vitamin B12. Others toil in the guts of ruminant animals, thus granting these creatures the ability of deriving nutrition from grass and other cellulose-containing material*. Bacteria such as Agrobacterium living in the nodules of leguminous plants* convert the otherwise inaccessible nitrogen from the air into readily usable forms for plant growth and construction of new tissue. Fungi associated with the roots of plants in relationships called mycorrhizae encourage the growth of plants by increasing absorption surface, reducing water stress, gathering nutrients for the usage of the said plants, and making the roots more resistant towards infection.

Hosts of microorganisms attack freshly dead plants and animals, reducing their corpses to elements to be returned to the environment from which they were born, making grounds more fertile for growth and giving other creatures the necessary ingredients for getting on with life*. Microorganisms involved in the phosphate cycle and various other chemical cycles ensure that the soil is rich in chemicals for plant growth. Microorganisms living on the surfaces of our bodies and that of other living things confer protection by playing an active role in encouraging the maturation of our immune system, and denying disease-causing microbes the foothold they need to colonise our bodies and do damage.

In fact, microorganisms have become such an important part of all our lives that to remove them would spell imminent death for us.

Microbes as producers of oil

About the most popular commodity today is petroleum. Not only is it a reliably good source of energy (most of our vehicles run on petrol), petroleum is also used as raw material in the plastics and synthetics industry. Because everybody needs petroleum, countries that have large oil traps or reserves are disgustingly rich.

Most of us are taught in school that petroleum is formed over the course of many million years deep within the earth’s crust, where the high temperatures* and pressure shaped and altered organic material into the slick black substance that is so prized in the world today. However, most of our teachers probably never told us that microorganisms were very deeply involved in the making of oil, or had at the very most, mentioned them in passing.

Among those involved in the formation of oil are stromatolites, which are mats of filamentous blue-green algae (also known as cyanobacteria*). The largest known deposits of oil shale in the world (the Green River Formation in Colorado-Wyoming, USA) harbours an abundance of their fossil remains, dating back to about 3,000 million years ago. These humble microorganisms supplied the lipids that would over time be converted into the hydrocarbons comprising crude oil. Scientists have established that microbes were the workforce behind the production of oil, but are still unsure of exactly how.

If the exact process of petroleum synthesis by microbes is unknown, the role of microbes in facilitating recovery of oil is an established fact. Some microorganisms produce carbon dioxide gas which propels oils from otherwise exhausted wells upwards. Xanthan gum produced by Xanthomonas campestri is also highly useful in loosening oil that stubbornly clings to underground rock particles.

Scientists are currently studying algae mats at the bottom of permanently ice-covered lakes in Antarctica in an attempt to understand how petroleum formation by microbes happens in nature. Who knows, maybe one day when the mystery is solved we will have giant oil farms, where the large population of workers will be mats of blue-green algae.

Microbes as mediators of decomposition and bioremediation

Recently, Singapore’s decision to stop relying on water supplies from Malaysia and to recycle their own wastewater has provoked skepticism and derision from the South-East Asian community. It is certainly not the first country to take up the initiative, nor will it be the last. And despite jokes of finding corn in Singaporean water, we must acknowledge the fact that they are harnessing the powers of microorganisms in bioremediation.

Brock Biology of Microorganisms defines wastewaters as

”…materials derived from domestic sewage or industrial effluents...”

Most of us just tend to think of it as, er, excrement cocktail.

Whatever we may call it, wastewater is a problem. Because of public health, recreational, economic and aesthetic considerations, it is of highly bad taste to merely dispose of wastewater into natural water systems without first processing them. You do not want your drinking water to taste of sewage. You do not want to get food poisoning because your water supply is contaminated with human waste.

This is where microbes come in, accepting this horrendously gross cocktail of waste and breaking down the organic substances into simple ones, turning the crud into water that is pure enough to be released into rivers or channeled into tanks for chlorination before they once again become drinking water. The complex organic chemicals are themselves recycled, returned to the environment in the form of ammonia, carbon dioxide and nitrate, and perhaps a variety of other gasses. What is left of the organic compounds is a solid residue which can be sold off as fertilizer.

The role of microorganisms as bioremediators was discovered in the early 1930s by Marjory Stephenson, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, who observed that microbes in the river that had been contaminated with effluent from a sugar-beet factory were digesting enormous quantities of the waste mainly into gasses. She later collaborated with LH Stickland to demonstrate that these gas-producing bacteria were producing an enzyme that somehow activated hydrogen. It is now known that this family of enzymes, called hydrogenases, catalyze a wide range of processes accompanied by the evolution or consumption of hydrogen, and that such activities are important in recycling organic matter in the environment. These hydrogenase-producing bacteria are highly valuable scavengers in the ecosystem because of their incredible contributions to bioremediation, breaking down organic matter to safer substances.

And then consider the case of the Arabian Gulf, into which was poured 500,000 tonnes of crude oil in 1990*. Panicking ecologists and the media foresaw the mass obliteration of life forms in the region. But they were wrong. By the end of 1992, blue-green mats of microbes embedded in mucilage had sprung up all over the oiled intertidal areas of the Gulf, the first signs of self-cleansing. Each gramme of a cyanobacteria mat* contains up to a million cells of bacteria capable of digesting oil. Although it is doubtful that cyanobacteria can themselves degrade oil, they are useful nevertheless because they provide the oil-gobbling bacteria with both oxygen and protection from being washed away into the open sea. Two researchers conducting studies in Nigeria in 1993 have also described an oil-utilising fungus, Aspergillus niger. Studies carried out in the Lagos Lagoon have also shown that a variety of bacteria including Micrococcus and Pseudomonas have been responsible for cleaning up the waters following repeated spillages.

Being neither capable nor willing of cleaning up large messes, we should thus be grateful that there are such microbial consortia around to do our dirty job for us.

Let's hear it for the good guys

When the word 'microbes' is mentioned, people have the tendency to think of damage and disease, yet science and nature have shown us that without these microorganisms, life on earth would not be possible. While it may be true that there are some microorganisms that are capable of making life miserable for us all, the fact remains that the majority of microorganisms are benign, or do us a great deal of good by colouring our world and making it a more interesting life to lead. Therefore it is time for us to stop putting the blame on every microorganism for whatever detriment that occurs, and accept the multitude of good ones as symbionts in our lives in a world that is too big for us alone.

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The dark side of microbes

In the time of Moses, Egypt was struck by number of plagues. Among them was their river turning to blood: “…and all the waters that were in the river turned to blood. And the fish that were in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river; and there was blood throughout all of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:20-21). Of course we now know that the river water did not turn into that slick red liquid that flows through our veins. These two verses are of utmost importance, however, because they are the first documentation of red tide happening in the world.
Red tide is caused by a type of algae called dinoflagellates*. When conditions were favourable, they bloom in a mighty explosion of red, killing millions of fish and birds that fed on fish. People were not spared. Toxins from these creatures were so potent that mere inhalation of its vapours could cause sickness and neurological damage. Affected fishermen developed open wounds that would not heal. People over time learned to dread the phosphorescent glow of the tides by night.

Everything in this world has a Yin and Yang, a good and bad side. Everyone has a black sheep or two in the family. Likewise, despite all the good bacteria that have helped life on earth, there are a number of bad ones that wreak havoc and generally give the family a bad name.

This is the story we are all familiar with. Every other day, some newspaper somewhere blares out the headlines, “Mystery Flu Kills Thousands”. Every winter, children way up north or down south fall victim to chickenpox or measles. Food that we have accidentally left on the kitchen table spoils and infuses the house with a putrid smell. Dentists prosper as the number of dental decay cases rise. Clearly, there are some very nasty bugs at play here.

Microbes as the cause of disease

If you were to stop any stranger on the street and asked him the role microbes play in our lives, chances are that he’d tell you that they were the cause of debilitating infectious disease.

He wouldn’t be far wrong. While microorganisms are not the sole cause of illness and disease, they are nevertheless the sole cause of infectious disease. Half of Athens was razed by plague in 430 B.C.*; Europe in the Middle Ages*. New diseases such as Ebola and AIDS have claimed just as many lives ever since their discovery. Old diseases such as tuberculosis, once thought to be controlled, is once again on the rise, not only in Third World countries but also in developed nations.

Humans are not the only creatures susceptible to disease. Plants are regularly infected by pathogenic fungi, one of the most notorious being Phytophthora infestans, which in 1845 ravaged Ireland’s staple food*. (in fact, plants can be infected by almost anything you can name from viruses to worms) Animals are no exception either. In fact, the ticks that are responsible for spreading bubonic plague to rats and humans are themselves victims of the plague bacillus*, driven to madness because any blood that they suck is broken down by the bacteria for their own nutrition, leaving the ticks in frenzied hunger.

Because of the microorganisms’ ability to adapt to any environment, we now have a whole host of them that can be transmitted by air, water, food, bodily fluids and even bodily contact. A number of them have even evolved to take advantage of the modern technology we have today, a good example being the Legionnaires’ Disease bacillus, which is spread by water droplets from air-conditioning cooling towers. Some have even developed ways to cross the species, even family, barrier. What is the Mad Cow Disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) to cows is Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease to humans. What once was thought to be a human disease, Hepatitis B, has recently been discovered to be transmissible to squirrels via mosquitoes. Parasites of amoebae can become parasites of man.

What makes things worse is that not only are many microbe-caused diseases contagious, but the one place we go to for healing and sanctuary from disease happens to be a reservoir for some of the worst diseases found on the face of this planet. Nosocomial infections are those contracted in a hospital, or like place of medical treatment. Day in, day out, hospital receives hundreds, thousands of sick people. It is inevitable, therefore, that some of these patients may harbour pathogens that inadvertently get spread around before medical treatment can wipe them out of the patient’s system. Other patients, whose immune systems are already weakened by whatever illness they are plagued with, are the perfect hosts for these pathogens. Incomplete cures or medications that fail to eliminate all of the infectious agents tend to select the hardy ones, those that are resistant to the medicine. When this happens, you get horror microbes like Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), multiple drug-resistant tubercle bacilli and the titan of nosocomial horrors, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, that resist any attempt to kill them off.

Microbes as the agents of spoilage and destruction

Next to disease, spoilage is what we dread most. There is nothing more distasteful than going into the kitchen first thing in the morning to discover that the garbage you’d forgotten to bring outside the night before is now exuding a wonderfully malodorous stink that has permeated everything in your house. Or, for that matter, biting into a slice of cheddar cheese only to discover that mold has already claimed the territory.

Because microorganisms are everywhere and have an incredibly diverse appetite, everything has potential to spoil. Meat spoils the fastest, since bacteria do not differentiate between dead organic matter to be recycled and food we eat, and turns both to sticky, smelly mush that is unpalatable to anyone but themselves. Confections such as ice-cream and chocolate can spoil if proper care is not taken to keep contaminants out of the way. Likewise, good wine fermented by choice microbes can turn sour if Pediococcus damnosus manages to sneak into it. Spoiled food is a nuisance, especially if one accidentally eats food that is spoiled and becomes sick as a result. It seems that the only way of getting around food spoilage and subsequent food poisoning is by cooking the food very thoroughly – lovers of medium rare steak, despair! – and eating it immediately. (and tossing any spoiled food into the garbage bin)

But we’d have little to worry about if microorganisms were contented to spoil just food. Microbial offenders have done quite a lot to make life miserable, including complicating the use of medical implants such as pacemakers, and clogging up industrial pipelines, thus impeding the flow of water and oil. They accelerate the corrosion of pipes and initiate degradation of submerged objects, for example, offshore oil rigs, boats and shoreline installations. And – to the dismay of the confection-lover – acid-producing bacteria are the cause for breakdown in dental health.

In 1992, a paper from the Defence Research Establishment in Novo Scotia, Canada, described an interesting case of microbes* ruining the turbines of a gas-powered turbine ship, and costing the Canadian Navy quite a big lump of currency. This incidence had no doubt embarrassed the Navy, especially since the crew assigned to the ship had been much more familiar with steam propulsion, and the ship’s new home port lacked expertise in the maintenance of gas-powered turbines.

Microbes as economy hazards

Anything that causes damage to commodity is a potential economic threat. The Guatemalans surely suffered loss when in 1996 their raspberry crops were devastated by rogue microbes, just as the Irish did when their potatoes were destroyed in 1844-5. About a million poor Irish folk died of starvation in winter, or were claimed by typhoid fever and dysentery; two million more emigrated to Australia and the New World. Likewise, when pig farmers in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia came down with a mystery disease that turned their brains to mush*, thousands of infected pigs were culled, seriously denting the pork industry – not just by reducing supply, but by instilling fear in the locals that the pork they were eating was infected. (it seriously did not help that the government had been circulating the wrong information to the masses, and providing vaccination for the wrong disease*)

Microbes as the cause of misery

In terms of victim number, the top three ranking plagues in the world are: the Black Plague (bubonic plague), the White Plague (tuberculosis), and acne. Well, at least to the adolescents, anyway.

While many pathogenic microorganisms are responsible for severely debilitating disease, there is a small minority that causes relatively mild symptoms, but creates debilitating embarrassment for the victim who is at the very least attempting to live a socially normal life. The wonderful red bloom of acne is one of the things that plagues teenagers who have just started high school and are trying to fit in with the rest of the kids. Smelly feet* and body odour*, are two other high school worst-case scenarios. And even if it weren’t for the cool school, it would be somewhat discomfiting to be squished into a bus with someone plagued with this at the end of the day. Pity the soldiers who are forced to march the whole day, and share tents by night.

What we can do to minimise damage and risk

It is imperative that when dealing with the enemy, we should familiarise ourselves with the enemy and strike at its weakest point instead of blindly lashing out at it or giving it weapons with which to strike back with us. Here is a list of suggestions on how you can protect yourself, or at least minimise the risk of winding up alone in a dark alley with a bad microbe:

  • Wash your hands properly with soap before handling food, after engaging in activity that will dirty your hands, and after using of the washroom. Many pathogens* spread through contact with contaminated material, and are often harboured in faeces and other wastes, which are all too easily transferred to our hands. Rinsing your hands under tapwater will not get rid of pathogenic microbes; a good old scrubbing with soap will.
  • Get vaccinated for infections that you are likely to contract, for example measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, hepatitis and tuberculosis. Make sure you follow through with the vaccination program. Also bear in mind that no vaccination is 100% effective, so avoid areas or people harbouring these diseases.
  • Don't abuse antibiotics. It's all and fine if your doctor prescribes them* for bacterial infection (do not take antibiotics for viral infections - they do not work!), but don't get too smart and prescribe them to yourself without medical advice. Chances are you will not only fail to heal yourself, but will encourage antibiotics-resistant microorganisms to thrive. Don't give them to your livestock either. And if you are prescribed antibiotics, make sure you finish the whole course; otherwise you also will be left with antibiotics-resistant bacteria.
  • Forget about antibiotic mattresses and antibiotic paint. The only rooms that should be painted with antibiotic paint is the hospital, where sterility is a must. You, on the other hand, do not need bacteria-free walls, not when there are microorganisms everywhere else in our house. Once again, you will be promoting the proliferation of antibiotics-resistant bacteria.
  • Avoid staying in an enclosed room with somebody with an airborne contagious disease, say the common cold.
  • If you are living in the tropics, avoid letting water stagnate anywhere around or inside your house. Stagnant waters are the popular breeding ground for mosquitoes, which are more often than not the vectors of disease.
  • Brush your teeth after you eat breakfast, not before. Swallowing bacteria that have been growing as plaque on your teeth won't hurt you - your digestive juices will eliminate them. Leaving food on your teeth after a meal for them to act upon is insensible, like using toilet paper on yourself before you use the commode.

Above all, find out more about these microbes on your own. Visit reliable websites like the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) to get the latest news about the latest outbreaks. Don't rely on word-of mouth or tabloid articles - a lot of facts can be distorted along the way. And don't panic unnecessarily.

A pastor met the devil on the road. He asked the devil, "Where are you going?"
The devil replied, "I'm going to Europe to kill a thousand."

Some time later the pastor met the devil again. He said, "The last time we met, you said you were off to Europe to kill a thousand. How is it that two thousand died?"

The devil replied, "I only killed one thousand. Fear killed the rest."

- Edward A. Alcamo
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Are microbes really at fault?

If microorganisms were to be put on trial, what would the verdict be? On the one hand you have these benign, helpful little neighbours who protect you from harm and who sacrifice their lives so that you can have the luxury of Brie and Cabernet Sauvignon; on the other hand, mad mutant microbes are on the rampage inflicting pain and claiming the lives of thousands. Does the good outweigh the bad, or vice versa? Are microbes really at fault for causing misery?

Stanley Falkow from the Stanford University School of Medicine believes that we have brought it upon ourselves:

”…The actual large-scale domestication of animals has slowed and has been replaced by the encroachment of human populations into the domain of animal species all over the globe. It is little wonder that our deliberate destruction of predators and the outgrowth of human populatiosn into virgin land with its attendant destruction of habitat led to the emergence of new diseases…”

Man has done much meddling ever since he discovered fire and started making weapons, and the effects of this mischief has started to rebound. The abuse of antibiotics in the farming industry and its indiscriminate or improper usage* (or sometimes our overzealousness in trying to eliminate the lot of disease-causing bacteria) has led to the selection of hardy microbes that can withstand killing by these chemical agents. Intrusion of humans into habitats of animals has led to the spread of Lyme Disease. The misting machine fad and improperly maintained air-conditioning systems have provided the Legionnaires’ Disease bacillus with a vehicle of transmission. Not bothering to cook your food properly despite the warnings of scientists is a good way of getting food poisoning in the worst way. Breakdown of healthcare and overcrowding leads to sanitation problems, which is favourable for spread of microorganisms. If we are to try to pin the blame on microorganisms, we should at least try to be introspective first and see the role we ourselves play in their spread.

Richard Dawkins once pointed out that Nature is neither fair nor unfair, neither good or bad. It just is. It is only proper that microorganisms be viewed in the same light. They have no conscious awareness of our existence, just as most of us are not aware of the cosmos. Where there is food, they eat and breed. Where there is space, they colonise so that their descendants will have someplace to live. Where conditions demand it, they evolve to adapt to their environment. Microbes are not bad or immoral; they are amoral – not possessed of the awareness of good or bad. If, in the course of their lives or proliferation they happen to cause harm to others, it is not intentional. Unlike most humans, they are not driven by revenge or passion or spite. It just happens to be something that happens. We were never blamed for having come down from the trees and developing opposable thumbs. What gives us the right to blame microorganisms for being what they are?

Microorganisms may have caused us a great deal of trouble and pain, but they have also enriched our lives and shaped our world. Despite our having repeatedly called them primitive, they are capable of performing some of the most amazing things on earth*. And like it or not, they were here for a great deal longer than we have. Good or bad, they deserve a great deal more respect than we have previously dealt out to them.


Barker, R. 1997. And the waters turned to blood. Simon and Schuster, New York.

Brookesmith, P. 1997. Future plagues: Biohazard, disease and pestilence. Universal International Pty Ltd, Australia.

Dixon, B. 1994. Power unseen: How microbes rule the world. WH Freeman and Company Limited, New York.

Falkow, S. 1998. Who speaks for the microbes? Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 4 (3)

Madigan, MT, JM Martinko and J Parker. 1997. Brock Biology of Microorganisms, 8th ed. Prentice-Hall International, Inc, New Jersey.

Margulis, L and D Sagan. 1986. Microcosmos: Four billion years of microbial evolution. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California.

Lynch, MC. 1996. Petroleum. The 1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopaedia.

Simon, HJ. 1996. Antibiotics. The 1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopaedia.

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