The Bacteria as Guru


Ever since the ‘germ theory of disease’ was propounded by Louis Pasteur two hundred years ago, the world has understood bacteria as the cause of numerous infections, many of them deadly. The insight led to the advent of antibiotics, hailed as ‘magic bullets’ for their ability to treat infectious diseases effectively, and it was believed pathogenic bacteria had been conquered for all time to come.

In recent times, confronted with the spread of antibiotic resistance and increasing failure of antibiotics to treat infections the response of many has been surprise, followed by great fear. The return of a pre-antibiotic era has been predicted and it is said bacteria will again become the great scourge they used to be once upon a time.

While there is no doubt that the threat of antibiotic resistance is real and needs to be comprehensively tackled it is not very smart to reduce all bacteria to nothing more than disease-causing, microscopic creatures. By considering them to be ‘enemies’ to be ‘eliminated’ at every opportunity – we are exacerbating the problem of antibiotic resistance, as a significant amount of antibiotic use is driven by anxiety.

There are several other reasons why the viewpoint of ‘us humans’ versus ‘them bacteria’ is counterproductive. Some of these include the fact that:

  1. Antibiotic resistance is an ancient phenomenon found in the natural world, which has been multiplied by the mass production and indiscriminate use of antibiotics by human societies. In other words, human behaviour and interventions in the microbial ecosystems themselves are the biggest driver of antibiotic resistance – so no point blaming bacteria alone.
  2. Bacteria are among the first forms of life on Earth, still are the most numerous and most important living organisms. Yes, a small number of them do cause deadly diseases, under specific circumstances, but the vast majority form the very basis of all life and living processes on Planet Earth. There needs to be greater respect for the contribution bacteria make to our survival.
  3. From the last couple of decades of research on the human microbiome, we know that the numerous species of bacteria are an integral part of our bodies – to the extent that they are considered another organ of the human body. Treating them as enemies is like cutting the nose to spite the face – literally.
  4. As the experience of using all the different classes of antibiotics shows, the problem of antibiotic resistance can never be completely overcome or ‘eliminated’ forever – there being no guarantee that any future antibiotic will be truly ‘resistance proof’. What this implies is that instead of searching for ‘final solutions’ the focus needs to be on finding ways to manage and mitigate the problem. This in turn will require significant changes in the way humans perceive and deal with bacterial life of different kinds.

In this rapidly changing understanding of human-bacterial relations, it is also time to ask the question, whether antibiotic resistance is the only lens through which we should perceive the bacterial world?  And whether such resistance itself should be seen as a phenomenon on its own, worth understanding to draw possible lessons for use in other human contexts?

How do bacterial colonies operate, adapt and survive a range of harsh environmental challenges – including the large-scale application of antibiotics and other antibacterials? What are the processes and principles at work within the bacterial world that are worth emulating or learning from in our own collective behaviour as humans?  Is there something we can understand about human societies by studying microbial ecology and the social behaviour of bacteria?

Before attempting to answer these questions there is a common doubt that needs to be cleared – why should we humans learn anything from any other species at all?

It is true that humans, through cultural evolution – especially development of language and technology –  have overcome some of the limitations of their own biological evolution and come to dominate Planet Earth historically. We can store and process information efficiently, we have developed tools that enable us to manipulate nature, our technologies help us travel faster, speak and see over longer distances, our weapons ward off rival species effectively and so on.

Paradoxically though,  these very same abilities also threaten our own survival because we do not fully understand the consequences our interventions in nature – climate change being a prominent example. Again, while humans consider themselves very intelligent, we are also the only species which has developed technologies and weaponry capable of ending all life on the planet. This capacity for collective suicide is surely a mark of madness and not of intelligence – which is about co-existing, not just with our own species but with all other forms of life too.

If done with great humility and wisdom, learning from bacteria – the oldest and most numerous organisms on our planet- can help the human species undo past mistakes and pave the way for a far more sustainable future. What are some of these lessons? This is not an exhaustive list I am attempting here but here are some possible things we can learn:

Conserving diversity: More than any other factor it is the sheer genetic diversity of the bacterial world that allows resistance to emerge again and again when confronted with antibiotics. For humans societies the lesson is clear – the more diverse we are the greater the chance of our own survival as a species in the face of various calamities. The attempt by powerful interests to ‘homogenize’ human populations – culturally, politically or economically – lies at the heart of modern violence. While anger, jealousy and hatred against other human beings have been the sources of violence historically, in modern times violence arises from a fundamentalist mindset that insists on there being only one path to the truth and rejects diversity of approaches or viewpoints. Modern violence, carried out on an industrial, genocidal scale, comes disguised in the garb of nationalism, economic development or technological impositions that claim to uniquely represent ‘rationality’ and the ‘common good’. Learning from bacterial diversity, all these intolerant attempts at reducing our complex world to one, uniform set of standards should be opposed and the rights of everyone to their own way of life and beliefs upheld.

Adapting to change: Bacteria have been around for roughly 4 billion years on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old. They have not only survived the harshest temperature, weather, toxicity and abrupt shifts in environmental conditions but have time and again contributed to mitigating these factors and making them conducive to the flourishing of life. They have in other words shown phenomenal resilience faced with the toughest of challenges – a remarkable trait, that again, humans would do well to emulate. For there is no doubt at all the future of the planet is surely in for some very tough times, where humans will be called upon to not only resist their own demise but contribute positively to the continuation of life!

Working collectively: We don’t know enough about intra-bacterial processes to say whether or not there is any such thing as an individual bacteria  – but we do know their lives are deeply embedded in the collective priorities of the bacterial colonies. As the late Israeli bio-physicist Eshel Ben Jacob showed in his work on bacterial intelligence, very large congregations of bacteria coordinate their actions  through intricate signalling mechanisms and work in a way that is in the best interests of their entire group. Of course, some of these actions may involve collectively giving human beings a high fever – but what humans can certainly learn from bacterial behaviour is the importance of collectives and collective functioning – as the fate of individual humans is also deeply  interconnected with that of all other humans and other forms of life on the planet.

Balanced consumption: One of the interesting characteristics of many bacterial species studied is the way they conserve resources and never overconsume whatever is available to the point of complete exhaustion. This is in direct contrast to how human societies over the centuries, have repeatedly failed to adopt lifestyles and consumption patterns that are ecologically sustainable. This is particularly true in modern times when humans, driven by the misplaced idea that new technologies will help them overcome all shortages, have feasted on the Planet’s resources to a point where even renewable resources are fast becoming non-renewable. Yes, we need to take from nature around us for our survival but the principle that we, as a species, need to learn from the bacteria, is to never take more than we can return to Mother Earth. And if nothing else, certainly not return toxic wastes while taking pristine resources!

Life and Death: Apart from contributing to the emergence and sustenance of life  bacteria perform another critical function on our planet – recycling organic matter. So when living organisms die it is bacteria that convert them back into forms that are useful for the regeneration of life. Through their  recycling function, what bacteria reveal to us is that even after death the human body never perishes materially, except in its outer form and continues to play a role in the planetary ecosystem. Understanding this continuity of our existence even after we cease to live is crucial to overcome the fear of death that has culturally traumatised human societies for millennia. While in the past various religions offered a solution to this trauma by promising an afterlife in heaven, in our own times, the modern medical industry has taken on this role by promising eternal life through use of technology – making it the most powerful religion of our own times.

Both religion and modern medicine seem to have offered us false choices, while it is bacteria who make us truly immortal by helping us – or our various components  – to continue playing a useful role on Mother Earth well after we are gone. If we do need to worship anything at all in this universe – bacteria are not such a bad choice at all.

Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker who can be reached at [email protected]. This article is based on a presentation to be made at a conference on ‘Mother Earth, One Health’ in Rosario, Argentina on 5-7 June 2019.


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