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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    May 1 2013: I think this topic is really interesting! I definitely think that it is important for children to be exposed to certain microbes early on in their lives so that they can begin building up their immune systems. I know that there are now so many parents who clean all of their children's toys right when they are done playing with them with sanitizing wipes, but I think that this plays a role in possibly causing children to have a weaker immune system. Like many other people have said, when I was little, I also spent a lot of time outside probably interacting with all different microbes. I was still hygienic and washed my hands, but my parents never excessively put hand sanitizer on me after every little thing I touched. I think that the mindset that people have about microbes being these negative entities is really hindering their potential beneficial uses.

    Your idea about creating some sort of bacteri-ell is really interesting, but I'm wondering how, with all the microbes that are part of the human biome, one can figure out which ones are good and which are bad? Also, since everybody is different, isn't there a possibility that some microbes can be harmful to some people but helpful to others? In that case, can you create a bacteri-ell that could work for everyone? Finally, I know that it is often a lot worse to get sick with viruses like the chicken pox when you're an adult than when you're a kid. So could the use of some sort of bacteri-ell have this same effect and be worse for adults than children?
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      May 1 2013: That is an interesting thought about the different effects of bacteri-ell on children and adults. If it were to become a possible product then effects on different people and age groups would be something that would need to be looked into. There would definitely need to be a lot of research and effort put into finding the right combinations of microbes and creating a product that would not back fire.
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        May 1 2013: These are key points. Scientists are currently working towards answering this basic question about how to assess which microbes or microbial communities are "good" and which are "bad". And yes different individuals - who vary in their age, genes, traits, environments, may respond different to different microbes. There is some interesting research being done at the University of Oregon META Center for Systems Biology using zebrafish and stickleback as model systems to begin to make some progress in this area http://meta.uoregon.edu/.

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