Monday, December 06, 2010

Bacteria, sickness and health

Mike Adams of Natural Health News often makes side quips about the modern scientific and commercial food establishment's anti-bacterial fixation. The general viewpoint promoted by our society seems to me to match what Adams complains about: that the only good bacteria is a dead one. As he put it in his last article about S510, Top ten lies about Senate Bill 510:
Lie #8 - The FDA just wants to make food "safer"
Actually, the FDA wants to make the food more DEAD. Both the FDA and the USDA are vocal opponents of live food. They think that the only safe food is sterilized food, which is why they've supported the fumigation, pasteurization and irradiation efforts that have been pushed over the last few years.
Sounds about right to me (as far as the mentality of the FDA and USDA). But, I was reminded recently, the mentality is totally wrong from the perspective of the latest scientific discoveries.

My reference to Bonnie Bassler in my "Weird" Science #5: Microbes and Soil post was picked up by Keith Johnson on the Permaculturelist blog. And that yielded a comment by Doug Weatherbee that focused on the central point of Bassler's TED talk--something I didn't mention in my post--the significance of what Bassler calls Quorum Sensing:
Over the past 15 years Dr. Bassler and her MIT team discovered that all bacteria species "speak" in 2 chemical languages: one language is a private language only understood within the specific bacteria species and the other language is the Esperanto common language understood by all bacteria species. Until Dr. Bassler's work, microbiologists couldn't understand how some bacterial mixtures which contained pathogens like E. Coli would not show E. Coli virulence and other bacterial mixtures which contained E. Coli the E. Coli would be very active and engaging in a virulent attack. Dr. Bassler figured out that the E. Coli were communicating to other E. Coli using the private E. Coli chemical language AND communicating to ALL of the other bacterial species using the common bacterial language. Only when the E. Coli number of individual bacterium RELATIVE to the total of all bacteria species numbers was high enough in E. Coli to give the E. Coli a fighting chance of winning would the E. Coli "switch" on and become virulent. From an evolutionary standpoint this makes sense. Why would a pathogenic organism species make an attempt to create dis-ease (which entails a use of valuable energy) when it is completely outnumbered by other microbial species who may be potential predators who function as a check and balance against the dis-ease.

This has profound implications for farming and ranching.
--And, I might say, to how we should approach a lot of medicine.

Weatherbee maintains his focus on agriculture (since that's his specialty; he's a Certified Soil Foodweb Advisor):
Whether our biocides are synthetic "chemical" pesticides or "organic" home-made pesticides, the thinking behind their use is the same: if the pathogen is present (even in a neighbour's field) we lay down a biocide attacking the pathogen. Our biocides, whether a commercial Syngenta pesticide or a homemade permaculture recipe for powdery mildew sulphur containing "organic" biocide, kills BOTH the bad-guy pathogen microbes and the good-guys.

Problem here is that the bad-guys usually (not always but usually) reproduce more quickly and come back before the good-guy microbes. Quorum Sensing points to a fundamentally new way of thinking about this in our farms. We need to increase the ratio of good-guy microbes in the soil and on the plant surfaces in relation to the "bad-guy" pathogen microbes. Research on plant pathogen suppression with composts backs this up. It's the amount of a plant pathogen species #s in a compost relative to the total pile of microbes that determines whether the plants will develop the disease. (Emphasis mine--JAH)
Well, the same relation exists in our bodies as well. As Barbara Minton notes in an article published on Mike Adams' Natural News site: "[T]aking probiotics is probably one of the best interventions you can do to stay healthy or regain your health. That's because those four pounds of little critters in your gut are to a very large degree your immune system. They hold the keys to your very existence."

I'm afraid Minton may be using an "old" and inaccurate metaphor for what occurs in our guts. For her, the "good" bacteria go to war against the "bad" bacteria:
Probiotics are friendly bacteria similar to those found in people's guts, especially in the guts of breastfed infants who have been provided this natural protection against many diseases by their mothers. Most friendly bacteria come from the Lactobacillus or Bididobacterium groups. There are several different species of bacteria in each group. Some probiotics are also friendly yeasts.

Taking probiotics is a way to keep your friendly bacteria population up to full strength so it is always at the ready to defend you. It is a way to replenish the bacteria that are killed off by the pesticides and chlorine. If you have taken antibiotics, taking probiotics is even more important because you probably have unfriendly microorganisms living in your gut that your reduced levels of friendly bacteria are having difficulty handling.
But I wonder if Bassler's view may be more accurate.

Perhaps what's happening is not so martial as the "old" probiotic model implies. Maybe the "good" bacteria never have to go to war at all. Rather, it's their fearsome countenance (sorry; I know I'm engaging in some anthropomorphism, here, myself; . . . --Maybe it's their overwhelming numbers, a bacterial form of what human militaries call deterrence) that, as Bassler's model suggests, "simply" dilute the more destructive bacteria's numbers enough that they never produce the "quorum" necessary to decide, "Let's go! It's time to attack!"
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