site  contact  subhomenews

Viruses can also be the good guys

May 07, 2020 — BarryK

Today I read "The Andromeda Strain", by Michael Crichton, first published in 1969, a science fiction classic. There was a movie made based on the book, and a TV mini-series -- the movie followed the plot of the book fairly closely, but the TV mini-series was very different.

The book is appropriate to read during the current pandemic. Quoting:

Most people, when they thought of bacteria, thought of diseases. Yet the fact was that only 3 percent of bacteria caused disease; the rest were either harmless or beneficial. In the human gut, for instance, there were a variety of bacteria that were helpful to the digestive process. Man needed them and relied upon them.

In fact, man lived in a sea of bacteria. They were everywhere -- on his skin, in his ears and mouth, down his lungs, in his stomach. Everything he owned, anything he touched, every breath he breathed, was drenched in bacteria. ....

And there was a reason. Both man and bacteria had gotten used to each other, had developed a kind of mutual immunity. Each adapted to the other.

And this, in turn, for a very good reason. It was a principle of biology that evolution was directed toward increased reproductive potential. A man easily killed by bacteria was poorly adapted; he didn't live long enough to reproduce.

A bacteria that killed its host was also poorly adapted. Because any parasite that kills its host is a failure. It must die when the host dies. The successful parasites were those that could live off the host without killing him.

And the most successful hosts were those that could tolerate the parasite, or even turn it to advantage, to make it work for the host.

Interesting that Mr Crichton wrote passages like that in the past tense. Also, the use of the word "man" is not so politically correct these days.

Reading this reminded me of a top health official in the Australian Government, advising us that when the Covid-19 crisis is over, we must retain the habit of frequent washing of the hands with an antiseptic hand cleaner.

This is paranoia. Actually, we need to be exposed to bacteria, and viruses, to keep our immune systems active. Perhaps also, there are other health benefits from constant exposure to bacteria and viruses.

Mr Crichton did not mention viruses, but we also have zillions of them on and in our person. From a brief look online, it seems that not much is known about their benefits, except for a few. Here is one interesting read:

I recall reading somewhere that children who are kept "too clean" will grow up to have health problems, that children left to run wild in the environment will not have. Those problems include allergies and auto-immune responses.

Let's see, there is lots of info on the Internet about this, such as:


The “hygiene hypothesis” is based on the idea that allergies are on the rise because we keep our houses—and our kids—too clean. Children need exposure to bacteria early in life to strengthen and boost their immune systems. Other recent studies have found that using antibacterial soap can increase the chance of developing allergies, while having pets, living on a farm and even spit-washing your baby’s pacifier can decrease the risk.

Just some thoughts, so that we don't get too paranoid and negative about these little guys.

EDIT 2020-05-08:
GCMartin sent me an email with a link to this video:

Reminds me of my childhood. I grew up in the countryside and ran wild. We used to swim in a nearby dam, that was murky soup -- sometimes there were dead sheep in it. And we drank water from streams and rainwater tanks. We relied on rainwater tanks for drinking, cooking and bathing -- one day dad discovered a dead possum in our water tank -- he commented, "that's why our water has such a nice sweet taste!". But we did take basic precautions, such as vaccinations, and I got a tetanus shot a couple of times, when I cut my head when hit something in that dam, and stepped on a nail.     

Tags: ethos