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: The idea of reintroducing beneficial microbes back into our system is nothing new, people take probiotics for their stomach all the time. How many of us know someone who loves their Kombucha? It seems so common to have allergies these days; food allergies, pollen, animals, there's an allergy for everyone. Personally, I think the lack of diversity in our diets and the distance we spend away from nature is making us sick. While a lotion or something similar may be helpful, I think that this could be a problem that can't necessarily be solved by medical technology. Like the frogs that couldn't produce Alkaloid Toxins researchers wanted because they weren't receiving the right nutrients while in captivity. There is no guarantee that cultured microbes can be as beneficial as "wild" microbes. So maybe we need to stop cleaning everything, and take a hike.
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      May 1 2013: I agree. In Jonathan Eisen's talk, he mentions that the microbiome is not necessarily the same for each person. Some people that have a certain disease might be missing some crucial bacteria that could cure them. A lotion would be most beneficial to people if it could be individualized to fit people's needs. This most likely will not happen any time soon, or ever. And like you mentioned, we do not know if this would even work. I would think that this would work as well as taking probiotics. Anyone know how effective that is?

      Even if this was possible, the public would have to get this notion of 'all bacteria is bad' out of their heads. Obviously those that take probiotics and some others know that bacteria and other microbes are necessary for good health. Unfortunately we live in a world where Lysol and other products pride themselves on killing 99.9% of bacteria, even though most of those probably are not bad for you. It will take some time for the public to change their minds about microbes. Hopefully people will go outside more and get in touch with nature until that happens.

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