Flavin’s Corner June 2003

Booze, Broads and Bugs

There's evidence beer was produced in the Orkney Islands of Scotland between c.3200-2200 BCE.  The debate continues over whether bread or beer was first produced in Neolithic agricultural communities (I lean towards beer and cite the remains of peas, beans and legumes discovered in France from the Mesolithic and the implied usage of a soaking technology), though it's understood that from time immemorial animals have consumed rotten fruit which often contains alcohol and early humans could have easily mimicked this behavior.  Because alcohol, a byproduct of the interaction of a unicellular fungus (yeast) and various sugars, significantly lowers inhibitions, girls are thought to have cooties, and alcohol consumption has led to an unimaginable number of unplanned pregnancies, I propose there's a long standing and complex relationship between booze, broads and bugs.  Ouch...

I remember that several times when I was young, I’d argue with other kids about the silly Christian quandary over whether or not Jesus ever accidentally stepped on an ant, or if his body ever fought off a common cold and thereby killed otherwise innocent bacteria.  Somewhere today, there’re kids having the same argument.  Kids will be kids, as they say.  However, there’re likely adults somewhere having similar arguments with fists, knives, guns, bombs, and political clout.  Uneducated, fanatical fundamentalist adults will be uneducated, fanatical fundamentalist adults, as they also say.  Ants aside, as well as any further discussion about an itinerant teacher who's been dead for a couple of thousand years, the issue of bacteria and heathy human development has recently started to be better explored and all of our lives will likely benefit.

Today, with the help of modern science, we’re beginning to understand microbiota and their role in basic human health.  In ancient times, some believed that spirits lived in beans and humans should avoid eating them.  Others, such as the Roman Emperor Claudius, saw nothing wrong with letting one rip and encouraged flatulence at the dinner table.  The explosive effects of bean consumption are commonly thought of as a natural process, though only lately have we figured out how some foods rich in complex carbohydrates (which for a variety of reasons escape being broken down by enzymes in the small intestines) are consumed by bacteria in the large intestines and the resultant gas is the byproduct of the bacteria turning the complex carbohydrates into sugar, a process similar to fermentation.  Perhaps some ancients suspected a connection between beer, leavened bread, bloated bodies on a battlefield and flatulence, but lacked a modern scientific vocabulary to express their suspicions.  Or, like the American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, they understood the effects of beer and beans and spent a great deal of time alone. 

[Note: Thoreau pretentiously considered himself "by nature a Pythagorean” and had little or no understanding of early mathematics, but embraced the term because of an alleged proscription by Pythagoras (kyamon apechete, Greek for "abstain from beans") to his disciples against either the eating of fava beans or engaging in politcs (as black and white beans were used in voting).  Thoreau admitted he didn’t know what Pythagoras meant, didn't care for beans and only grew them at Walden as a potential cash crop.  Several ancient authors debated the alleged proscription and a consensus was never reached.  Complicating matters further, recently it has been suggested that certain people with an Eastern Mediterranean background are extremely allergic to fava beans and the alleged proscription may not have had anything to do with spirits, flatulence, or politics.  And, as these things go, Dr. Hannibal Lecter was born in Lithuania and isn’t allergic to fava beans (as will be seen in the forthcoming film, The Lecter Variations: The Story of Young Hannibal).]

Ongoing studies demonstrate the inevitability of human gut microflora (sic, as bacteria are not plants).  It now appears that most babies acquire beneficial bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria infantis and Lactobacillus acidophilus, from their mother’s birth canal, which forms the basis of their gut microflora which assists digestive and other abilities.  Breastfeeding also assists in this.  However, babies born by caesarian section will generally, after several days, pick up such potentially dangerous bacteria as Streptococcus agalactiae (though it can be acquired from a vaginal birth, as well) and Clostridium difficile, common in many hospitals despite efforts at cleanliness.  These bacteria (along with certain strains of Escherichia Coli and other harmful microflora) cause infantile diarrhea, a condition which is fatal to more than a thousand babies a year in the United States.  And then there’s the often deadly microfaunal rotaviruses.  In the so-called Third World, millions are affected by infantile diarrhea, and though the individual cases arise from different causes such as unclean drinking water and infant formula dependence, a healthy gut microflora isn't established in these babies, and they are fatally unprepared for life.

Plague infected flea.

[Note: A notorious example of deadly gut microflora which continues to plague humans is ...plague, Yersinia pestis, bubonic plague, or the Black Death, which killed some twenty to twenty five million people in the fourteenth century. Y. pestis is not a human gut microflora, but rather attacks fleas (who then joyride on the backs of rats until coming in contact with humans, as the story goes).  Several years back, scientists discovered that when three aberrant genes occur in Y. pestis and fleas become infected, a mass of bacterium develops which blocks the flea’s fore-gut, starving the flea and compelling it into a feeding frenzy.  Making matters especially disgusting, the flea can't digest properly as it feeds and regurgitates, vomiting blood and the Y. pestis bacterium, thereby spreading ...plague.  Infected fleas don’t live long (no comment).  For an example of a bug in a bug in a bug, click here.]

It’s estimated that the average human has between two and four hundred different 
species of bacteria in their large intestines.  That  approximation indicates a natural and almost predetermined relationship.  Long ago, an evolutionary symbiosis arose between humans and mutualistic bacteria and a balance was reached whereby humans enjoyed hosting beneficial bacteria and those bacteria got free food in the form of undigested leftovers passed on from the small intestines.  Maintaining that balance, if possible, would seem to be a worthy undertaking.

Recognizing the balance was a crucial first step. However, science is still investigating the various reasons forany imbalance (antibiotics and certain over-the-counter medicines are among the many culprits now being studied), but treatments are already being cautiously suggested.  Current treatments are divided into prebiotics (carbohydrates and other non-digestible food ingredients which are able to pass through the small intestines and assist in the production and maintenance of beneficial bacteria in the large intestines) and probiotics (live beneficial bacteria).  As many species of human gut microflora remain unidentified, much work is ahead, and eager or desperate consumers are at great risk from quacks, cons and profit-driven pharmaceutical companies.

In an online book review of Probiotics and Prebiotics: Where Are We Going? (Gerald W. Tannock, editor; Wymondham, U.K.: Caister Academic Press, 2002) for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Martin J. Blaser, of the New York University School of Medicine, comments: “Rigorous scientific exploration of this question has been limited by two factors: the colonic biota (flora) is vast and also largely undefined.  In consequence, many studies, fueled by commercial self-interest, have lacked the stringency necessary for true scientific advancement.”  Honesty such as this is appreciated, however the problem and the challenge of a solution remain.

With substantial funding from the European Union, an initiative utilizing sixty-four research centers in sixteen different countries has begun to examine the importance of maintaining a healthy human gut microflora.  Pro-EU-Health held the second of five planned workshops this past May in Taormina, Italy.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization have also been active in this area. 

The above mentioned two to four hundred different species of bacteria which reside in the average adult human colon are only part of the total microbiota which we contend with.  With only fifty or so species of bacteria identified in the human mouth, scientists believe the actual number may come closer to five hundred.  And then there’s the bacteria which live on our skin and other places.  It’s thought that the average adult human body is made up of ten trillion cells and that approximately one hundred trillion bacteria call us home.  Taken together, the bacteria in our gut and elsewhere are estimated to weigh between two and a half to four pounds.  Well, that’s the bacteria; next ...the critters.

[Note: Wild rumors abound concerning colonic activity and associated problems.  I’ll leave it to Freudians to speculate why.  The estimated weight of bacteria in and on the human body is often taken out of context and the figure is used to represent only gut microflora.  I'm uncomfortable with claims that humans pass their own body weight of dead bacteria in feces annually and I’ll leave it for others to sort out.  Likewise, claims of "mucoid plaque" and pounds and pounds of undigested meat in everyone's colon seem generated to sell fad products.  Buyer beware!] 

Body lice, or Pediculus humanus humanus (Linnaeus).

Okay, I’ve known a couple of girls with cooties, but they were able to get rid of the infestation with a few Rid treatments.  Our term “cooties” seems to have become popular after World War I and its usage by British sailors to indicate disagreeable parasites.  The Polynesian kutu (Hawaiian uku) refer specifically to head lice; an infestation problem which many young children continue to encounter at the beginning of a new school year.  So, while it’s reasonable to suggest that some boys do catch cooties from girls, the reverse is likely true as well.

Lice are not the only critters who fancy humans.  Even a partial listing of fleas, ticks, and mites which habitually infest humans might be enough to bring on a case of entomophobia (though this is slightly unfair, as ticks and mites are related to spiders and are not insects).  Problems with "worms,” both as insects (fly larvae) and nematodes (roundworms, pinworms, etc.), are sufficiently understood enough to command the appropriate precautions by all (Off!® and avoiding raw meat comes to mind), however concerns with mites seem to be currently in vogue.

First described in the 1840s by the noted comparative anatomist, Richard Owen, mites are the critters we least like to discuss, as there’s not a lot we can do to prevent them from using us as a playground.  There’s the common house dust mite, Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus (Trouessart) and D. farinae Hughes (Pyroglyphidae), and the allergen, air quality, and “buy this vacuum cleaner” hype (a small amount of which is true), but it’s the follicle mite, Demodex folliculorum (Simon) (Demodicidae), the one that lives on eyelashes (and other places), that's presently getting top-billing on the bizarro marquee. 

Studies indicate that follicle mite infestation is age related, with children having few, adults harboring a sizable community and seniors providing campgrounds with all the amenities.  There’s evidence they carry bacteria (some of which could be harmful) and they may assist in acne and rosacea.  That they’ve been found inside of blackheads just means that the little critters can hide well.  Claims that follicle mites are responsible for male pattern baldness probably originated with a cousin of ex-Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf.  However, the suggestion (see "Treatment") that women have more mites than men seems credibly advanced and should be investigated (perhaps a bit more vigorously than the “cootie” confusion).

Besides critters, the average human body plays host to assorted viruses and fungi (including molds), yet  the bacteria are our most numerous “guests.”  Conversely, one might argue that we’re the guests and vacationing on what the late Prof. Stephen J. Gould called the “Planet of the Bacteria.”  Some estimate the total biomass of bacteria on Earth to be approximately one hundred trillion tons.  As current guesses of Mom Terra’s Gaia-ish figure are around six septillion tons (that's 24 zeroes, btw), the weight of bacteria might not seem like much, but it’s enough to merit respect.  They were here before us, we couldn’t have evolved without them, and they’ll likely be around after we’ve left home for new digs elsewhere. 

That itinerant teacher I put aside above (prosed flourish?), the one who’s been dead for a couple of thousand years, probably did step on an ant at one point.  Some have attempted to better understand that itinerant teacher by envisioning him as a black man.  Or a drunk.  Or a woman.  The drunk, black woman approach has been done and we’re still asking, “Why can’t we all get along?”  The dreams of Jesus, Mohandas and Martin probably didn’t include dealing with harmful and beneficial bacteria, but they were understandably concerned with other issues.

Most dreams are unplanned, some are miscarried and lost, while still others persist and become reality.  Reality?  A nerd-noir vision of a drunk broad with crabs might clog a drain or three, but that’s a genre thing.  It’s about responsibility.  Alcohol, like women, should be consumed responsibly.  Bugs?  Learning to “get along” with bugs is about as real as it gets.

putting starch in my collar,

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