TED Conversations

Anna Crist

student researcher , University of Oregon

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Purell now, Bacteri-ell later?

The hygiene hypothesis, the idea that “too much cleanliness prevents the development of a well-balanced immune response”(Sironi and Clerici, 2010), has received a lot of support and also criticism. It has recently been challenged by the hypothesis of “early immune challenge”, which states that a lack of appropriate immune stimulation during early childhood might account for the increased development of allergies in industrialized countries (Kramer et al, 2013). This proposal places less emphasis on excessive hygienic practices and focuses more on the insufficient exposure to specific environmental microbes, particularly those from non-urban environments, as the reason behind the rise of atopic disease. While different, both hypotheses point to the beneficial health affects of some microbes.

What do you think is the reason for increased allergy levels in industrialized countries? Do you think that a concoction of the “right” microbial species in the form of a lotion, drink, or inhalant (aka "Bacteri-ell") could be a future replacement for natural exposure to beneficial microbes?
Instead of using hand sanitizers like Purell, do you see a future where people from some regions of the world are unsanitizing their hands with “Bacteri-ell”?


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    Apr 30 2013: Many people in this conversation have pointed out that it would be a better idea to encourage people to stray away from the use of antibiotics, rather than introduce themselves to microorganisms more frequently. While this is probably a good idea, the focus of the question is whether or not it is possible to develop immunity to microorganisms if you weren't exposed to them at a young age. We don't know enough about microbes at this point to be able to determine whether applying a culture of bacteria to ourselves would result in positive or negative outcomes, however the idea is a step in the right direction. Once we have determined which microbes have definitively positive influences on humans, it would be a good idea to allow ourselves to be exposed to them regularly. It may be hard to keep the organisms alive in a way that mimics purell, because nutrients may become limited quickly. In what other ways could we expose ourselves to these organisms, without having to worry that the culture will die?
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      Apr 30 2013: I agree that it would be hard to keep microbes in a lotion (they are already hard to culture in a lab as it is.) I mentioned to Ben Story that maybe humans themselves could be "microbe donors." Maybe without going so far as fecal transplants... But maybe children could just come in contact with people who are known to have a more diverse "microbe cloud" (and we had a future way to test this), say those who live on farms, and they could be exposed to the helpful microbes that way (which happens to a certain extent anyway, this would just be more deliberate and have more science behind it.) Also, using animals as carriers could be another way. Making sure children are taken to petting zoos with animals who are known to have beneficial microbes (like frogs!) :)
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      Apr 30 2013: Thinking about other ways to get exposure to microbes I kept thinking that the best ways to increase people's environmental exposure would be one that was sort of lo tech and easy and cheap to do. I was imagining something along the lines of a petting zoo, in fact it could just totally be a normal petting zoo. A place where children would be exposed to a variety of microbes naturally through no extra action of their own. Sticking to this basic approach is definitely less exciting than the development of some sort of bacterial concentrate to simulate natural exposure, but I think it would be far easier than isolating exactly which microbes someone needs to be exposed to in order to develop properly and extracting from the concoction the ones deemed unnecessary.
      The most challenging part of this would probably be the public health front of it in convincing parents to let their kids be kids and get dirty. I think in general that the best approach to solving problems like this is to utilize a natural approach as much as possible if it is effective, and I think that in this case that a traditional exposure regime would be the safest and most effective plan of action.

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