Antibiotics, or “We have no idea what we’re doing”

This dropped out of Ye Ol’ YouTubes yesterday. It was so fascinating, I thought I’d kick off the blog with it. You’ve got Julian Davies, head of the microbiology department at the University of British Columbia, saying that antibiotics don’t just go away once they’re in circulation, among other things.

Pharmaceutical companies produce millions of tons of antibiotics every year. How about hundreds of millions of people and probably billions of industrially-raised livestock and fish pissing out antibiotics every day, which go right into the water and soil? How about the antibiotics that get thrown away by the ton once they pass expiration? And that’s not counting the tens of millions of antibacterial soaps, lotions, sprays, dishwashing liquids, deoderants, pet shampoos and toothpastes (did you even realize that was an antibiotic? Did the manufacturers ever bother to tell us?) produced every year as well.

You wash your hands, brush your gob, flush your toilet, and that stuff goes right back into the biosphere. With profound effects on the natural world.

Only 30 minutes, and well worth the click:

Harvesting the Molecular Wealth of Microbiomes

The take-home, besides the fact that we’ve been playing with fire for decades, is that microbes are a COMMUNITY, not something to be seen in isolation. In the natural world, they live and exert their effects in concert with others, while in an ecological balance with hundreds or even thousands of other strains. They live off each other’s excretions. They signal each other constantly. They toss molecules and chromosomes back and forth. Context is everything when it comes to bacteria.

Assigning “bad” and “good” effects to one single strain is naive, and extremely dangerous.

Paracelsus is all fine and dandy, but we’re not talking about a single human patient here. That’s pretty easy to gauge. No, see, this is about worldwide inter-relationships that are TOO COMPLEX FOR YOUR PUNY KNOW-IT-ALL NOODLE. We have been sub-therapeutically dosing the world with antibiotic mixtures since around the 50s. And if we had pretty much no idea what we were doing with high doses to eradicate pathogenic strains, we have even less idea what low doses over long periods of time are doing as they seep into our lakes, streams and soil.

One man’s dose only stays his dose for a short while; once he pulls the chain, it becomes his neighbor’s (diluted) dose. Have you thought about what something as innocuous as your hand soap could be doing to him? I chose your neighbor as an example because you actually see him. What about the other 99.9% of the natural world you don’t see?

When it comes to the planet, we don’t know the dose.



Edit: I can hear the comments already that he’s talking to a roomful of scientists interested in exactly the kind of reductionism I’m railing against. But you have to give Davies credit for trying to introduce an ounce of environmental responsibility and a more community-centered spirit into the Human Microbiome Project.



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