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: While it is disturbing that microbes are so under appreciated in globalized society, it is heartening to see microbiology reversing that trend. Given the historical aversion to germs and the strong cultural association that we have with things we can't see and sickness, I am happy to see more research into positive aspects of microbes.
    As far as a product to help ensure a healthy microbiome on our bodies, I would be concerned about the leaving curve of the product. An earlier comment mentions Johnathon Eisner's talk on microbiomes in which he attributes his development of type-1 diabetes to having a compromised microbiome. He also notes how the human microbiome influences our health and resiliency in other ways. With that in mind, my concern is that by developing a creme or lotion for promote microbe growth, we could disrupt peoples' microbiomes further. Just as early ecology (think introduced species) has had disastrous effects, I think adding a bunch of new microbes to a complex ecosystem could potentially do more harm than good (in some cases, anyway). So, while the idea of appreciation one's microbiome as another organ of our body (I think Eisner said that in his talk, too) is a really important step to take, I don't think that means that we should necessary slather ourselves in bacteria lotion without first better understanding how our microbiome works, and what it needs to be healthy. Is more bacteria always better? How can we nourish the microbiome we already have?

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