Microbes - Good or Bad? Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Microbes - Good or Bad?

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If micro-organisms 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The actual large-scale domestication of animals has slowed and has been replaced by the encroachment of human populations into the domain of animal species all over the globe.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 populations 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. Now, the effects of this mischief have started to rebound.

  • The abuse of antibiotics in the farming industry and their indiscriminate, improper or overzealous use in trying to eliminate all disease-causing bacteria1 has led to the selection of hardy microbes that can withstand killing by these chemical agents.

  • Intrusion of humans into the 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.

  • Overcrowding and breakdown of healthcare lead to sanitation problems, which are favourable for the spread of micro-organisms.

If we are to try to pin the blame on micro-organisms, we should at least try to be introspective first and see the role we ourselves play in their spread.

Richard Dawkins2 once pointed out that Nature is neither fair nor unfair, neither good or bad. It just is. It is only proper that micro-organisms 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 micro-organisms for being what they are?

Micro-organisms 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 earth3. And like it or not, they have been 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.

Further Reading

1Did you know that you can now get anti-bacterial paint? Why would households need anti-bacterial paint, especially when you can find micro-organisms everywhere else?2Geneticist, author and Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.3Such as the 'quorum-sensing phenomenon', which is all about bacteria communicating with one another. Those of us who are not too anthropocentric will realise that there is more to communication than just talking.

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