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Bacteria from the surface of a human tongue

For once, Ferrebeekeeper has a very important point which I desperately want you to walk away with. If you don’t want to wade through my carefully crafted exposition (which builds gradually to this important public health message by first contemplating the nature of Earth’s dominant living things), click here and the WHO will provide this message with brevity and decisiveness.

Today I would like to write briefly about the true masters of planet earth, the bacteria and discuss some very important aspects of our relationship with them.     Bacteria are everywhere and inside everything.  Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than cells which are our own.  They live in kangaroos, grapes, arsenic springs, molten-hot sea vents, and inside the earth’s mantle. In the depths of time, they altered the planet’s oxygen-free atmosphere into one where oxygen is plentiful and they alone among organisms (other than chemists) can fix molecular nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia. There are estimated to be more than five nonillion (5×1030) bacteria on Earth–which together vastly outweigh the biomass of all other living things combined.  They were here first (by billions of years) and they will probably be here last, when the sun expands into a red giant and swallows the earth like a cocktail onion.

I should probably write more and think more about bacteria.  We all should. Not only is the planet is theirs, but they are more diverse than all other organisms.  They likely exist in parts of earth we have never even reached. They may even live in a shadow biosphere which is based on biochemical reactions we have never thought of as life-like.  Who knows?

The Diversity of Life: Bacteria (prokaryotes) are in blue.

Unfortunately, like most people, when I think of bacteria, it is usually as a disease.  Even though pathogens only make up the faintest fraction of the teaming bacterial world, bacterial illnesses are terrifying.  Tetanus, typhoid fever, diphtheria, syphilis, cholera, bubonic plague, staph, pneumonia, leprosy and tuberculosis are all bacteria, as are many other wicked diseases.  For most of human history we knew these bacteria only by the results of their work and we lacked any means of dealing with them other than our immune systems and crude poisons like iodine, bleach, and alcohol.

However all of this changed in the twentieth century with the miraculous accidental discovery of penicillin, a substance produced by a certain mold which killed or inhibited bacteria.  Humankind discovered that many fungi and actinomycetes contained similar compounds, the antibiotics, which have made human life incalculably better and saved lives beyond the telling.  Of course, as with all good things, we have also abused these miracle drugs to cure minor ailments, market unnecessary household cleaners, grow fatter livestock, and treat viruses (which antibiotics don’t even cure).  Overuse of antibiotics stresses the healthy bacteria which live inside our bodies perhaps contributing to a host of autoimmune and degenerative diseases.  Even worse, bacteria reproduce with inhuman speed and, when not killed outright, quickly mutate into antibiotic resistant strains.  These antibiotic resistant bacteria are becoming widespread.  Many people in hospitals are dying.  Drug-resistant pneumonia, tuberculosis, and staph infections are beginning to spread.

A Diagram of Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics

All of this is leading up to a pointed conclusion. Today is world health day and the WHO (world Health Organization) has launched a campaign to combat antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance.  They wish to combat drug resistance by (1) curbing overuse of antimicrobial compounds, (2) making sure that people receive the correct prescription and finish the entire course, (3) stopping the sale of substandard products, (4) curtailing agricultural and industrial use of these compounds, (5) convincing laboratories and drug companies to reengage and reinvest (antibacterial or antimicrobial drugs are not as lucrative as heart medicines, erection pills, and weight-loss medicine).  Here is the World Health Organization statement again and here is a link to a thoughtful piece about the problem in the Economist.

Most scary things you read in the news are inflated bogeymen that people have hyped up so you will click on their websites and watch their daft advertisements.  The nuclear meltdown in Japan will not hurt you unless you live in the shadow of an affected plant. You will never be bitten by a shark.    Your plane is profoundly unlikely to crash and even less likely to be blown up by terrorists.  The world is safer (for you) than ever.

But now you could die of an antibiotic resistant disease you catch in the hospital during surgery, and the odds for such an end will go up unless we all become more conscientious. Drug resistant superbugs could harm or kill your loved ones if we don’t act to fix these problems. So listen to the WHO, help out the many friendly bacteria (which help us all sorts of ways), and don’t abuse antibiotics or antimicrobial compounds.  Also, if you happen to be a powerful capitalist, some sort of executive, or a legislator, please try to work with the WHO to provide more rational incentives and rules for the sale, use, and creation of these compounds.

Thanks! Happy World Health Day and bonne santé to you all.

I’m a globalist who favors free trade and open markets, so I hope people won’t take me the wrong way when I take a certain amount of umbrage with today’s capitalism.  A new generation of leaders and thinkers need to rework the way in which decisions are made and resources are allocated. The actions of the market—which so many economists and businesspeople regard as sacrosanct–are hemming us in to a stale repetitive worldview, which is ultimately a trap.

The way we live now...

Capitalism is very good at creating captivating plastic rubbish, dangerous motor-vehicles, elaborate insurance for said vehicles, and erection pills, but it is less gifted at facilitating fundamental scientific research.  Most of the really important technological innovations of the last century came from the military, from universities, or from crazy monopolies (before they got busted up).  Capitalists refined these ideas and made them marketable, but they were not interested in the initial open-ended “blue sky” research which was expensive and did not always proceed logically to money making technologies.  Virtually every part of the aerospace industry originated in military technology for solving cold war (or World War I & II) tactical problems. The internet grew up out of defense department computer and communications experiments. The capacitor was created in one of Ma Bell’s laboratories before AT&T was broken up. Antibiotics were discovered by an absent-minded professor with a messy lab!

Capitalists are necessary to refine and popularize great ideas, but they do not see farther than the bottom line…and the truly worthwhile discoveries are lurking out there in the wilderness beyond immediate financial recompense.

Yes, yes but where exactly are we going?

There are indeed avenues by which money travels into pure research. Rich bankers give money to universities and research hospitals. Taxpayers give money to NASA and the military.  All of us give money to monopolies (which have an insidious way of forming despite legislation prohibiting them). These avenues are not enough.  We are stagnating.  Ask anyone.  Or just look outside at a fossil fuel & automobile based world which seems pretty fundamentally similar to the 1920’s.

Dammit, that's what I figured. Can't you think bigger here for just a few minutes?

There is a world of wonder out there and our future could be bright indeed: By the end of my life we should have nanobots that eat cancers and repair brain damage. We should have space elevators and brilliant robot superservants which (or maybe I should say who) beat the Turing test.  We should be crafting true artificial ecosystems that exist outside of this world (because it doesn’t take a genius to see that there are too many of us). However, the investment bankers and wallstreet power brokers need to rethink the utility of the (musty oligarchical) world they are building, and politicians are going to have to think beyond the end of their term. Otherwise the glowing future is never going to come.

A probabilistic functional gene network of the small plant Arabidopsis thaliana (Image: Insuk Lee, Michael Ahn, Edward Marcotte, Seung Yon Rhee/Carnegie Institution for Science)

I have no idea how to incentivize these things better. Maybe we should ask an economist. But don’t you want to live a much longer life? Don’t you want space elevators and robot servants? Then write to your congressperson and ask them to send more money towards research (or better yet, vote for a new legislator—none of the current ones seem much good).  If you are a stockholder, vote out the current board.  I am blaming our shortsightedness on our leaders but they are a manifestation of all of us.  Our vaunted capitalist system needs to incentivize vastly more scientific research and it needs to reward bold long-term thinking (rather than myopic money-grubbing). We are going to have to stop thinking small and greedy–only then can we create a future which is truly big enough and great enough for our bright dreams.

A Bernal Sphere (painting by Don Davis)

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