Blame it on the Microbes
Are microbes really at fault?
It seems to me that today’s education system is totally twisted where biological science is concerned. Sure, they teach you about plants and animals, but those only make up one-third of Earth species diversity. What about the other two thirds? Don’t they count? Oh, I forgot – they’re too small to be seen, so everyone ignores them. That’s why they’re called microorganisms, or microbes – out of sight, out of mind.
What's a microbe?
Hold on, don’t answer, let me guess. Microbes are those horrid one-celled organisms that are so small they can hide from human vision; those nasty creatures that wiped out a third of Europe during the Dark Ages, those sadistic bugs that make us suffer torturous bouts of the ‘flu. In fact, they’re a menace to mankind and should be eliminated completely! Am I right?
If all of this could be made into a movie, the microbes would play the part of the merciless, leering villains out to wipe out the human civilization, and a bunch of brave, white-coat scientists would be the heroes, saving the world from a certain bacterial doom. Doesn’t it sound like those old Cowboys and Indians movies? Just about every non-scientist around has it programmed into his or her brain that microbes are wicked, disease causing, and should be avoided or destroyed at all costs, and I’m not being biased or judgmental when I say this.
C’mon guys, give those microbes a break. Hey, do you think they actually like being microbes? If they could think, that is – and they can’t. How would you like it if you were living a quiet, peaceful existence, doing what you do to survive, and suddenly people start calling you a threat to society, throw you out of your home and start pursuing you down the streets with toxic gases and poisons and military weapons? (if you’re somebody who’s fighting for this-and-that rights, you’d surely appreciate this comparison)
Innocent! And underappreciated!
Unlike serial killers and rapists and arsonists, these microbes are guiltless. They’re not even aware that we, as collective masses of tissue, exist – to them, we must be as vast and incomprehensible as galaxies are to us!. All they know is that there’s food and shelter for them, and they’re contented with that (how many people today would be satisfied with just that?). In fact, they’re the most undemanding creatures Nature has ever made, surviving in the most extremes of conditions on so little that they make mankind seem greedy by comparison.
But, like I’ve said, these poor microbes are greatly under-appreciated. They’ve been so wrongfully labelled and unjustly accused of things for which they are not at fault. People march for African-American rights, women's rights, gay rights, geek rights, conservation of the environment, but who defends the microbes?
I have, therefore, taken it upon myself as a Microbiology student, to disillusion you and convince you that these microbes are not who they appear to be, and I hope that by the end of my article you will have developed a different point of view for my little friends.
Living with microbes
Let’s start with a little-known fact. Did you know that from the minute you were born to the world you are colonized by microbes, and that you would stay colonized to the day that you die*? Eugh, disgusting, isn’t it? Want to get rid of those bugs once and for all? Okay, so what would happen if I could actually remove those bugs from you? No more bacteria and fungus on your skin and mucosal surfaces. Uh oh, that means no more army to protect you from invaders! Your body is basically an unguarded fort, a disaster waiting to happen*. And so those nasty pathogenic bugs from the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat, swarm into your body, delighted that no one is in residence there, and wreak havoc upon your systems. They set up happy families (colonies) in your intestines and penetrate your blood vessels, swimming around in your bloodstream. If your immune system is Herculean in nature, you survive with some side effects. If not – you die. I’m not going to gross you out by telling you about all the nasty diseases you could die from.
Not a pretty picture, is it? Let’s take it one step further and consider what would happen if all the microbes were removed from the face of this Earth. No more yoghurt, no more cheese, no more soy sauce, and certainly no more alcohol. What’s the big deal? I can get along without those luxuries, you say. But wait! There’s more. Ruminant animals (those that eat leaves and grass. Admit it – you eat them!) would no longer have bacteria in their guts to help them digest their food – no nutrition! They die out. Legume plants like tubers would not have those nitrogen-fixing guys, which means they won’t be able to synthesize proteins, unless lightning strikes the soil repeatedly (improbable, and even if it could happen, it would fry the ground to cinders). And who can grow without proteins? They die out too. There go your vegetables! The ecological balance is eventually thrown out of whack. Things die off one by one. You’re dead as a dodo.
Am I getting your attention yet? Are you scared yet about what kind of a world you’d be living in if there were no microbes surrounding you? Good. Then let me proceed to brainwash you with the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
NOT ALL MICROBES ARE EVIL
Think about it. Why do you think that you have bread and cheese on the table, and fine wines like Beaujolais to drink? Why do you think that hardly anyone in developed countries die anymore from microbial illnesses, saving AIDS*? Why do you think you are alive at all today?
I’ll tell you why. It’s because of the microbes.
One of my best friends once said to me, "I don’t think microbes are really that important in our lives except as pathogens" (he was a math major*). Well, Threepio, if you’re reading this, I’ve news for you. Microbes play a variety of roles in our lives, and not just as disease factors. On the contrary, most of them are unsung heroes, the ones who do all the work but get no credit. Let me introduce you to two of these creatures that play important roles in your lives but are, sadly, unknown to most of us:
Meet Penicillium chrysogenum. He’s not exactly a decent looking chap, being a fungus and seeming to have multiple heads sprouting out of one long, thin neck – but have you ever heard of the antibiotic called Penicillin that’s saved the lives of millions? Well, this is the guy that produces the drug. Yes, yes, I know that what with the antibiotics resistance phenomenon and all, penicillin is no longer the physician’s drug of choice, but if Alexander Fleming had never discovered penicillin in the first place, who knows how long it would have been and how many people would have died before someone else stumbled upon antibiotics?
Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also called Bakers’s Yeast, are big, fat and round, except when they are reproducing asexually, which is when they look like they have heads. These guys, among other things, make your dough rise. Imagine – without them, your bread would be nothing but a big, depressed flabby lump of dough clinging to the pan, and the Pastry Industry would be no more than somebody’s warped Pipe Dream. The Egyptians had long since discovered the hidden potentials of these guys, and had harnessed their capabilities to the production of wines and beers. I say we give the Egyptians a round of applause.
Want to meet more celebrities? There’s Acetobacter and Gluconobacter, which are responsible for the production of vinegar; Aspergillus niger, which is your choice fungus for citric acid (you know that orangey taste in your drinks and such?) and Pleurotus and Lentinus edulus (shiitake mushrooms), which are sacrificed without mercy to your immense appetite and rumbling stomach. Millions and millions of Steptococcus lacti and Lactobacillus acidolphilus work relentlessly to ferment your ordinary milk to lactic acid to delicious creamy yoghurt. I’d introduce you to more, but I think we’ve all had enough of Latin names for now.
The point I’m driving at is that MOST of these microbes are the good guys – don’t discriminate them! Take a look at this slightly more comprehensible list (which I think you will greatly prefer to my uncontrolled ranting):
The importance of microbes in the environment (and in us):
- They protect us from unwanted invaders
- They help us synthesize vitamins such as vitamin B12 (without it, you’d suffer from pernicious anaemia, which is a deprivation of white blood cells)
- They are used in the synthesis of commercially important stuff such as amino acids, citric acids, enzymes and other organic compounds
- They are used in the production of antibiotics, which is one of the main reasons why you’re alive today
- Without them you would not have foods such as cheese, alcohol, yoghurt, curds and whey, sauerkraut, bread and other pastries etc etc
- They live in peaceful co-existence with animals and plants alike, helping them to digest their food* and producing important organic compounds for their utilization
- They aid us in our digestion (ever heard of Lactobacillus acidolphilus?)
- They turn organic matter such as leaves and grass and such into compost, which is that nutrient-rich black stuff you use in gardening. In fact, they are cultivated in industry as fertilizer producers. Compost serves as a soil conditioner, and food for plants
- They degrade dead organic matter. Imagine what it would be like if dead animals and plants remained whole forever! What would you do with them? Okay, so decomposition stinks. But at least they’re getting rid of unwanted stuff. Also they’re recycling nutrients. What’s so bad about recycling?
- They’re the guys involved with bioremediation – hey, no one else can deal with wastewater and oil slicks! And speaking of oil…
- They’re the reason we have biofuel – petroleum, natural gases…. What, did you think those ancient carcasses just decided to turn themselves into gasoline overnight?
- And the most controversial – without them, genetic engineering would not be possible. That means, no frost-resistant strawberries, no better tomatoes, no gene therapy…. I know that a lot of folks are against messing around with nature, but hey, we’re trying to improve the standards of living!
Convinced now that without these guys life would be nothing more than a pitiful, miserable existence? Good . However, although I’m fanatically pro-microbes, I would still advise you not to eat moldy bread (even though that’s where the original penicillin came from) or consume just about every mushroom that you see in the forest. Or (this is the worst of the lot) eat anything that has passed its due date. A line has to be drawn somewhere.
What’s the big idea? Here you are, trying to promote microbes as the heroes of the environment, and suddenly you’re telling us not to eat expired food? They’re coated with microbes, aren’t they? Microbes are good for us, aren’t they?
Well, yes – and no. Like I said earlier on, MOST microbes are good guys. That’s like saying that most people are good. It doesn’t mean that everyone’s a saint, does it?
You already know this part by heart. Microbes are undeniably the cause of infectious diseases. (contrary to the belief, cancer does not spread by physical contact with a victim, and you can’t give your rheumatism to your spouse, no matter how hard you try) Before the age of antibiotics, anyone who caught syphilis was a goner (remember Schubert, that little composer who liked women just a little too much?), and if anyone you loved had the Bubonic plague, all you could do was stand at the sidelines and watch him or her die a horrible death (assuming you didn’t die of it yourself). And if you think that the worst microbes can do is cause disease, then I suggest you pay close attention to the next line.
Here is (as my good friend Tycho puts it) the dark side of the microbes:
- They are a contributing factor to autoimmune diseases (eg. Anaphylaxis, allergies)
- They cause infectious diseases, some of which lead to irreparable tissue damage and even death
- They cause food spoilage (which is why you should never ever try eating food that’s expired*), and can even ‘poison’ it with toxic metabolites – remember the canned tuna fish disaster?
- They are a source of misery for adolescents – ACNE!!! And various other skin infections as well, if I might add. And dental problems (bacterial plaque!!!)
- Because they can also infect plants and animals, they also pose as an economic hazard
- They can also make life difficult for those with prosthetic devices such as pacemakers*, and are perfectly capable of ruining water pipes and submerged objects
- Beware – not all mushrooms are edible! If, however, you stubbornly insist on eating toadstools, then all I can do is send you a wreath
It's just a way of life
Well, nobody’s perfect. But hey, these microbes aren’t hurting you intentionally, you know. It’s not as if they’re bent on revenge, raging in their tiny brains (they don’t have any, BTW), ‘oh, this so-and-so human has killed all my relatives with antibiotics, so I’m going to ravage this so-and-so’s body in the worst possible way and make him/her suffer like hell!!!’ No! Like all the other creatures that exist on the face of this Earth, these guys are just doing what they have to do to survive. They have no one to protect them from harm. They have no guarantee that they’ll live long enough to have kids. It’s just that sometimes, somewhere, somehow, they accidentally wind up where you don’t want them to go, and through their very act of survival, cause other organisms great grief. To err is human; to forgive, divine.
I will say no more. I will not attempt to make you beat upon your breast and wail in guilt and sorrow that you’ve been cruel to these innocent microorganisms all along. It is all up to you now to weigh the pros and cons for yourself. Good versus bad. Are these microbes really as evil as they’re made out to be, or do they play a significant positive role in your life? Would you rather live in a world surrounded with microbes or alone in an existence where there is nobody to brighten up your day with fermented foods and fine wine, and share your body with? (lovers don’t count) It’s your move, though I’ll be damned if I know just how on earth you intend to rid yourself of your residential microbes.
All I’m asking from you, kind reader, is a little bit of gratitude for these overworked creatures. I think that after all that they’ve done for us, the least we can do is not to take part in ridiculous activities such as colonic irrigation (which is supposed to rid your guts of microbes), and not to condemn them as irredeemably evil mass murderers.
Please – don’t blame everything on the microbes. Like us, they’re just living too.
Books you may want to check out
Get to know more about microbes. Read my favourite books.
Dixon, B. 1994. Powers unseen: How microbes rule the world. WH Freeman and Company Ltd, NY.
Madigan, MT, JM Martinko, and J Parker. 1997. Brock Biology of Microorganisms, 8th edition. Prentice Hall International.
Margulis, L and D Sagan. 1986. Microcosmos: Four billion years of microbial evolution. University of California Press.
Read my other article about antibiotics resistance.
Or read what this guy has to say about the same topic.