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: As many people have brought up, we know very little about microbes and even if we did, it's not as simple as "good" microbes and "bad" microbes. This makes me skeptical that developing a single product like "Bacteriell" would be useful for the kinds of services we are hoping it would deliver (ex. reduce certain types of chronic diseases). Additionally, the premise of the argument seems to be that young kids need exposure to microbes. It's unclear whether "adding" microbes to your skin later in life will prove effective. Such a product would thus need to be catered to young children and probably wouldn't be analogous to Purell, but more like a supplement for babies in skin cream form.

    To address a point that's been raised several times--the nature lover in me wants to advocate for more time outdoors. We should be reconnecting with nature instead of producing synthesized and probably sub-par replacements. On the other hand, I had the privilege of growing up where I had almost constant access to the outdoors; my parents could send me outside without worrying that I would be unsafe. The reality is that most people in the US (and increasingly the world) live in cities, and with the wealth gap increasing, parents may not have the luxury of bringing their children out to the wilderness everyday. Because of this, my tendency is to lean toward a city planning solution over a commercial product. Emerging concepts of eco-cities take sustainability into account with city design. However, the focus is still on limiting impacts rather than being proactive about conservation. Most plans for parks or green areas focus on recreation and aesthetics over maintaining some kind of ecological diversity, both at the macro-fauna level and the microbial one. This kind of a focus could serve several purposes, including providing a place for kids to be exposed to microbes as well as reducing biotic homogenization. Any thoughts on this? Or existing examples?
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      Apr 30 2013: I agree with you Mika. I'm not so sure about adding "Bacteriell" alter on in adults will help to reduce certain diseases. In a mean while, we need more time and research on studying skin and human microbiome. I love outdoor activities. I exposed myself with nature most of the time when I was young. I think this definitely is one of the reason I rarely get sick. I think most of the reasons people live in the cities don't want kids to be outside because the severe air pollution in the city. After get used to Eugene extremely clean air, every time I went back to Taipei, Taiwan, I got skin and eye allergies. So my personal experience kind of tell me that my microbiome on my body has changed probably throughout these several years I lived in Eugene.

      I like your idea about city planning solution in the big cities. We all know city parks / gardens are really important to kids live in cities. To add on that, maybe a small area of "educational" ecosystem (include microbials) right beside the the park or gardens so that both parents and children are more willing to reconnect with the mother nature.
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      Apr 30 2013: The connection to natural areas within cities, or even constructed parks, is something I find very interesting. I also like the idea of looking to exposure in natural environments as a way to built strong immune systems through exposure to a variety of organisms found here. As a few other people have said below, until we know which microbes benefit our health I think looking to the Earth's natural environment, which we've evolved with over a long period of time, is currently the best bet for building strong immune systems in young people.

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