By Ed Raymond
Six Pounds of Matter That Really Count
Our brain weighs about three pounds, give or take a few ounces. The bacteria that insinuate themselves in every nook, cranny, and organ in our bodies also weigh about three pounds. Maybe that is just coincidental, but sometimes it may take three pounds of brains to control three pounds of bacteria, or vice-versa. So far science has discovered 10,000 species of bacteria crawling around in and on us. A crawling baby already has 100 trillion microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, and other junk) crawling all over him.
The oldest bacteria at this writing is about two and one-half billion years old. We have been around for only 1.9 million years – so far. All elements in the world are so covered with bacteria there is absolute truth in the statement: “Take a breath and sample the world.” The prevailing winds and the oscillating ocean currents carry bacteria around the world quickly. Before aircraft, ships, and walking, bacteria affected and infected everything on earth. Microbes outweigh our cells at a ten to one ratio. Our medical experts are just at the stage of being able to count things. As an example a human adult is made of seven octillion atoms (that’s 27 zeros). A human has about 23,000 genes, with 1,461 actively involved with the operation of the brain. But a microbiome which might give us some deadly disease, or save us from one, has over four million genes. Enough already, my head is splitting!
Bacteria and Viruses Are Tougher Than Humans
I have been keeping an open file on bacteria and other tiny bugs and stuff for years, primarily because of my interest in health care. Bacteria have been found recently in some very inhospitable places. They live happily under a half-mile of ice in Antarctica in a large lake – that has been sealed off from surface contamination. Scientists are now trying to determine what species they are. There is no sunlight under that much ice, so there must be some decaying material for the bacteria to survive.
A Russian drilling crew found bacteria under two miles of ice in a subterranean lake called Lake Vostok, where it takes 10,000 years for waters to renew. Microbial life was also discovered. The DNA is currently being worked on.
Complex, multi-celled worms, called the “worms from hell,” have been found in very deep gold mines in South Africa and 20 feet below the ocean floor covered by miles of water. The worms have nervous, digestive, and reproductive systems and are covered with bacteria. The discovery of these worms prompted scientists to say that the discovery was equal to finding Moby Dick in Lake Ontario. One species of bacteria discovered that deep in the ocean evidently live on the radioactive decay of rocks as their energy source. Enough already, my head continues to split!
Let’s Look At The Embarrassing Facts Of Life For A Minute
If we are lucky enough to leave our mother’s womb, we leave a place where there is not a single bacterium or microbe. From the womb we pass through the vagina, our mother’s birth canal, where huge colonies of bacteria begin to completely cover us. Along with the bacteria come the viruses and other fascinating fungi and potent yeasts to add pleasure and danger to our lives. These “bugs” conquer our digestive system. They fill our mouths, capture our teeth, flood the skin, and line our throats with “gunk.”
When these bugs were discovered doctors thought it best they be eliminated completely from the body. There is evidence the attempt helped us in some situations. Most Americans born in 1930 died by 1990. But today a baby has a realistic chance of living to 85. That has come to pass because we have held in check those microorganisms that took many lives. But it’s the antibiotics which have saved millions of lives. By the age of 18 the average American has received from 10 to 20 treatments of antibiotics, whether needed or not. In 2010 over 43 million courses of antibiotics were prescribed. Dr. Martin Blaser of the New York University School of Medicine says: “These drugs have saved countless lives, and it is very important that we not lose sight of that fact. Whenever they are used, though, there is collateral damage. And we are only now fully learning how severe that damage has been.”
Why Feed Antibiotics to Healthy Animals? Greed, Of Course!
The Forum ran an editorial from the San Jose Mercury News about the “gutless” lack of action by the Food and Drug Administration in the use of penicillins and tetracyclines to make healthy animals grow faster. The investors in the meat industry bought 29 million pounds (that’s 14,500 tons!) of those two antibiotics in 2011. Humans used only 3,500 tons of antibiotics. The overuse of these antibiotics proves two things: (1) that Darwin’s theory of evolution really exists, and (2) that credible studies prove that this overuse causes bacteria to evolve to more dangerous forms of E coli, salmonella, and all types of urinary and blood infections. We have already created some “monster” bacteria that cannot be controlled or subdued by any antibiotics. MERSA and the flesh-eating bugs are perhaps the best example.
Contrary to what intelligent designers and the creationists think, science marches on in the brains of innovative medical researchers. Prior to 1982 doctors thought that stomach ulcers were created by stress. Ulcers interfered with the whole process of turning food into energy. Remember, the lining of the stomach is only one cell thick. Often real skinny people were ulcer victims. Perhaps some oldsters will remember that great dancer Ray Bolger of yesteryear. He looked like a cadaver zombie. The comedian Fred Allen joked that “Ray Bolger is so skinny he has to carry his stomach ulcer in his hand!”
In 1982 two researchers discovered that the bacteria H. pylori was the main cause of gastric and peptic ulcers; that stress had nothing to do with ulcers. This bacteria had come out of Africa 200,000 years ago and was associated with the increased risk of stomach cancer. H. pylori is corkscrew-shaped and is only three microns long (A grain of sand is 300 microns in diameter). But it can clamber around the stomach, living comfortably in stomach acids. Suddenly doctors realized they could kill the bacteria with antibiotics and cure the victim. But there always seems to be unintended consequences.
Antibiotics Can’t Tell the Difference Between Good and Bad Bacteria
Michael Specter in a New Yorker article “Germs Are Us” outlines some of the problems when we start to kill bacteria: “The human body turns out to be a vast, highly mutable (subject to inconsistent, fickle change) ecosystem – each of us seems more like a farm than like an individual assembled from a rulebook of genetic instructions. Medicine becomes a matter of cultivation, as if our bacterial cells were crops in a field.”
When we kill off ulcer-causing bacteria with antibiotics, we may also kill off the bacterium Lactobacillus sakei which protects us from the painful sinusities that could hit 30 million Americans each year. We have both good and bad bacteria. We are in the infant days of determining which. Dr. Blaser says research suggests that the killing of certain “good” bacteria may result in obesity, asthma, and even Crohn’s disease. My oldest brother has Crohn’s and has a terrible time with it. The research continues.
So far, one thousand different species of microbes have been discovered in the gut. One bacterium called S. mutans is the principal cause of tooth decay. If we can find an antibiotic – or something – to kill S. mutans, we would no longer have dental cavities. Dentists would have to find another line of work. Perhaps they could work on the fact that children who receive large doses of antibiotics due to many illnesses have much higher body-fat percentages. Remember, we feed animals and chickens tons of the stuff so they can gain weight quickly!
The Effect of Cesarean Sections and an Exciting Earwax Transplant
Although we have conquered or suppressed many diseases with the invention of antibiotics, the science surrounding bacteria and viruses has not answered why the 21st Century has seen explosions of obesity, celiac disease, asthma, allergy syndromes, and Type 1 diabetes. Are we killing off bacteria that help to limit these diseases? We deliver about a third of the four million babies born in the United States by Cesarean section. These babies do not get the shower of bacteria as they pass through the birth canal. Is this why children born by Cesarean have much higher incidences of allergies and asthma? Before antibiotics a woman was born with 10,000 species of bacteria. Each generation born “after antibiotics” has fewer live species of bacteria. Researchers have not counted how many species a modern woman has left from her great grandma’s 10,000. Is it 9,000? Is it 7,000? Inquiring minds and bodies need to know. We are entering a world we know little about.
We spend over $2 billion treating several million cases of sinusities with antibiotics each year. New research indicates that our sinus passages contain 1,200 species of bacteria—if we are healthy. But the person with chronic sinusities has only 900 left. So something has killed off 300 species that allow the sinus passages to be filled with gunk. Just maybe ...
An earwax story out of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine is also illuminating. A man came to the clinic with a chronic infection in his left ear. He told doctors that other doctors had tried everything: anti-fungal drops, antibiotics, and many other treatments. The Pittsburgh doctors gave him additional antibiotics. The patient came back to the clinic a week later and said he was cured. The clinic doctors told him they were glad they had helped him. He said: “You didn’t. I suffered so much after your drugs I took some earwax from my right ear and put it in my diseased left. In two days I was fine, infection cured.” The clinic doctors finally got the answer. The good ear contained good bacteria that killed off the bad in the bad ear. Nothing like an earwax transplant to solve an infection! But what to do if both ears are infected…
The Latest Thing: Fecal Transplants
About 10 percent of the population is infected by a bacterium called C. difficile, but it is usually contained and suppressed by other bacteria in the gut. But if the “good” bacteria is killed off by antibiotics, C. difficile can make life very difficult with severe diarrhea and colon inflammations. Tens of thousands of people around the world die of this bacterium and often hundreds of thousands are very ill. Some people are helped by several courses of antibiotics. A few patients are not. A new type of transplant may be the answer.
Doctors obtain fecal matter and bacteria from healthy donors and simply place it in the intestines of the infected person through a colonoscopy. The result will blow your minds. In one trial of this procedure using family donors, 34 patients out of 34 were cured!
Doctors and researchers are also discovering treatment by bacteria transplant is a very complex business. As an example Lactobacillus GG is a bacterium that prevents eczema in babies–but may cause Crohn’s disease in adults. It can also, in rare cases, cause a fatal inflammation of the inner layers of the heart. There is a new term to use in this end of the business–probiotics instead of antibiotics. Researchers are already thinking of strains of bacteria acting as surrogate “farmers” to repair damaged bacteria ecosystems. Science marches on.
And last, a lesson for those who think dinosaurs and Teanderthals were pals on the prairie. Evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski has spent 23 years in his lab nurturing 52,000 generations of bacteria. In that we have both good bacteria and bad by the billions in our bodies, he is running the longest 24/7 experiment in history trying to determine how bacteria evolve and mutate over time and thousands of generations. He has 12 populations of bacteria that live in an incubator. Each day these 12 populations produce seven new generations because bacteria live less than four hours. Each day project scientists take one percent of the population of each flask they are growing in and transfer them to a growth medium. They also take samples every 500 generations and freeze them for future study. They have proven that bacteria evolve, mutate, and often become more powerful. In testing E. coli they have found two types have evolved from one after 500 generations, one much stronger than the other. But a test at 1,000 generations also determined that the weaker one had disappeared.
In other testing, scientists have determined that after 30,000 generations some bacteria evolved to a taste for food energy other than glucose. This is very important research. The bacteria are used to determine the effectiveness of antibiotics and other treatments. Again, among millions of other examples available in land and sea, we see that even bacteria prove that evolution does take place. We must continue to have faith in science and a personal religion rather than in the sometimes bizarre tales of bigoted, ignorant, womanizing men who lived over two millenniums ago.
Researchers are already thinking of strains of bacteria acting as surrogate “farmers” to repair damaged bacteria ecosystems. Science marches on.
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