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Alien Nation, Part One
Where is our humanity?
by DK Holland
When I was a little kid, monsters lived under my old four-poster bed. Although I couldn’t possibly describe what they looked like, I knew these creatures were savages who would surely grab my tiny feet, pull me under, torture and devour me live if I gave them any opportunity. So at night I vaulted onto my mattress careful not to touch the bed skirt. Sometimes I avoided the whole thing by sleeping on the floor of my walk-in closet aiming my flashlight squarely at the door. I wasn’t alone. My kid sister Jenny slept in the room connected to mine. She had a crucifix above her bed. She was counting on Jesus to repel the vampire she knew would otherwise surely suck the blood
out of her little body (leaving her lifeless or worse, undead). Even though we were filled with anxiety, our parents seemed oblivious to their daughters’ dilemma: how to get a good night’s sleep.
The fears that come from deep down in our brainstem are the hardest to outgrow. And since our brains are still primitive, unbridled fear can shape our precarious perception of reality, twisting it, convincing us of something that simply is not so. When we are so far off balance, when we are ill-informed, we can solve one problem while creating three or four others.
CIRCLE THE WAGONS, HERE COME THE MICROBES
Nothing is scarier than an invisible threat. In the late 1800s medical students started to learn about “germ theory,” a new concept popularized by several medical professionals including Sir Joseph Lister, the British surgeon who developed antiseptics as an innovative way to fight infection during surgery. Renowned French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur in turn developed key vaccines to prevent disease. All this came in an age of massive, unprecedented newness—the Industrial Revolution. For the first time we were asked to imagine that invisible creatures—microscopic organisms—were invading our bodies, causing disease. Eventually this led us to have a serious obsession with hygiene and especially with germs.
OUT, OUT DAMNED SPOT!
Germs. Germs. Germs. The dictionary defines “germ” as “root, source or seed” as in “germ of an idea” or “Germany” or “germane.” But the word germ has become synonymous with “invisible killer.” Germs are dirty. The only good germ is a dead one. But since we can’t even see these mortal enemies how do we defend ourselves against them on a daily basis? This particular conundrum took hold of the Western world and, over the years, evolved into an ongoing nuclear war on microbes, these single-celled “aliens” that are literally everywhere, in the air, on the earth, inside of us.
FEAR CREATES BUZZ, BUZZ CREATES CHURN AND CHURN LAUNCHES PRODUCT
Manufacturers born of the Industrial Revolution embraced another innovation—consumerism. Today you can buy antibacterial body washes (with moisturizer), antibacterial household cleansers and antibacterial weed killers. But biologists now know that while we play host to many thousands of species of bacteria and parasites, far more are essential to our health and well-being than are deadly. For instance, many of them communicate with our immune cells to fight off disorders and disease. We have a rain forest in our intestines. Science writer Carl Zimmer says, “We have fungi, viruses, protozoans, about three pounds of non-human things in there. We have about 100 trillion micro organisms in our guts—a couple of thousand species in a complicated network that we don't quite understand.”
But we are throwing the baby out with the bath water. We have gotten too clean. For instance, while it’s true the parasite E. coli lives in our intestines, it may never pose a problem and is actually helpful by excreting the vitamin K we need for blood clotting. Other kinds of microbes defend our skin, including some that live only on our forehead: D.folliculorum and D.brevis. Several different kinds of bacteria live on our hands including pathogens, but it’s not a problem if we simply wash them regularly with plain soap.
Far smaller even than microbes are micromachines, strings of amino acid within our cells that work to power our heart and mind. They produce everything our cells need, including ways to fight infection. They manufacture and deliver new parts when something breaks down within our cells. Medical illustrator David Bolinsky has partnered with Harvard University to create short hyper-rendered animations that show life inside a cell.1 It’s touching and illuminating: There are 100 trillion cells in each of our bodies and each cell is like a teeny tiny town in which micromachines are busily performing maintenance work. This is a symbiotic relationship since we depend on our cells to be able to do their jobs and do them well; and when they yell for help, they depend on us to hear them. We send them the nutrients they need. And we also work to control our stress levels which, when high, can age our cells.
Do you have smelly feet? Yes? Different types of bacteria are producing antibiotic compounds for use in combat in between your toes—setting off mini stink bombs in the jungle of your hair follicles. This could also be happening in your belly button or your mouth. This is totally normal. Professor of biology at North Carolina State University Rob Dunn says, “There is a lot of territorial competition among microbes. There are hundreds of little Shakespearean dramas going on in and around your body all the time.” But we go over-board when we kill microbes indiscriminately with antibacterials. It’s not good for our cells, plus we create mutant super bugs in their place that are resistant to antibiotics. Microbes are literally everywhere. They live in our sinks, water heaters, refrigerators and on our toilet seats and pillow slips.2