Bacteria Are Our Friends, Except When They’re Not

It’s good to remind ourselves occasionally that we human beings are little worlds of a sort. Each of our bodies is composed of trillions of cells (about 40 trillion, based on a recent estimate), each going about their individual business, and many more microorganisms, mainly bacteria, each going about their business too.

I’m not sure why it’s good to remind ourselves of this fact, but it seems like something worth keeping in mind. It might, for example, help us not be so fearful of bacteria. They’re not necessarily bad for us. For one thing, they help us with digestion. More surprisingly, some scientists believe that, before people began frequent applications of soap and shampoo, one kind of bacteria (Nitrosomonas eutropha) flourished on people’s skin, acting as a “built-in cleanser, deodorant, anti-inflammatory and immune booster by feeding on the ammonia in our sweat and converting it into nitrite and nitric oxide”.

That’s the theory behind an article in the New York Times by a woman who went one month without using soap or shampoo. Aside from her greasy hair, she didn’t notice any ill effects. Nobody complained about her odor. In fact, after encouraging the growth of N. eutropha on her body for a month, her skin was in better shape than when she started the experiment. The scientists involved hope that bacteria might one day be used to treat various skin conditions, like eczema and acne, and even help certain wounds heal more quickly.

That’s the good news. The bad news (which is much worse than the other news is good), is that medical authorities are calling attention yet again to the spread of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The Guardian reports that a group of senior British scientists expressed concern last week that we face “the prospect of people dying from routine infections because effective antibiotics no longer exist”. One scientist said:

In the near future it is possible that a scratch from a rose thorn could become septic. Without effective antibiotics, septicaemia could easily set in and result in death. It is a terrible prospect, but a very real one. We are facing a return to the state of affairs that existed before antibiotics were discovered.

Any kind of surgery and treatments that affect the immune system could all become life-threatening. As a stop-gap measure, the scientists recommend that hospitals go back to having old-fashioned rooms with widely-separated beds and windows that can be opened to allow in fresh air. 


Unfortunately for us communities of cells and bacteria, the drug companies aren’t developing new antibiotics, because there is little profit to be made off drugs that people only take for a short period of time. Chalk another one up for capitalism and the free market. 

As dangerous bacteria continue to evolve, it becomes increasingly likely that epidemics will sweep the world before new antibiotics or other treatments will be available, unless there is increased government support for the needed research. The alternative is to wait for the problem to get so bad that it becomes profitable to fix it. 

Taking these developments into account, it’s safe to assume that one day many of us will be dead from bacterial diseases we don’t know how to fight. But our skin will be in the best shape ever.

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