A Closer Look at our Relationship with Germs

The term “Germs are everywhere!” has been a motto for microbiologists and microbial enthusiasts for a good reason. There are over a nonillion (that’s a one with 27 zeroes behind it) bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa and nematodes living on the planet and they literally can be found from the depths of the oceans to the highest peaks of mountains. They make up close to 90% of the cells of your body and have been involved in changing human history. Yet despite these realities, understanding the role of germs in our lives has been at best enigmatic.

Some six and a half years ago, I had the opportunity to open the door to the microbial world with a local television station, CTV Ottawa. The question of the two-part segment was simple: where can germs be found and do they pose a threat to our health? But the story took on a life of its own, revealing the good, the bad and the ugly of these unseen creatures. Though I didn't know it at the time, it would open a door for me as well, from a lab rat with twenty years working with an assortment of microbial species to what I am better known in the public today, "The Germ Guy."

Thanks in part to that piece and the following work I did doing interviews, live Question and Answer segments and guest articles, I gained an appreciation of the public opinion of germs. Unfortunately, the perception wasn’t good. Germs were for the most part considered anathema and up to half of everyone I encountered was a germophobe. Microbes were compartmentalized as ‘bad news’ and little more. Yet this was only a small part of a greater picture of their involvement in our lives. There was so much more that could have been – and should have been – known to not only improve our attitude but also our behaviour towards them.

In short, we needed a better relationship with germs.

The concept of a relationship with germs may seem perplexing at first. After all, how could we, as sentient beings capable of thought and action have anything to do with the most basic life forms on the planet? Yet every moment is shared with germs and our contentment is dependent on how we co-exist with them. If we keep our bodies full of good bacteria, we’re happy; if we allow unhealthy ones to enter, either through infection or dysbiosis, we end up miserable. Taking this one step further, thanks to the work of the Human Microbiome Project and other researchers and organizations, we are learning that we may be able to prevent and in some cases reverse chronic health conditions by simply improving our connection with our microbial residents.

Apart from a personal relationship, we as a collective species are learning to live with germs. We have turned to them to help us solve some of our greatest challenges. Consider the impact of genetic engineering, which has helped us mass produce insulin and remediate giant oil spills. We’ve also been taught lessons about how we as a civilization should act. The HIV pandemic has greatly changed the way we view intimacy. SARS and pandemic influenza revealed the need to pay more attention to the way not only humans, but also animals travel. Perhaps the most important lesson has come from the crisis of antibiotic resistance. It arose not due to a preponderance of supervillain germs; it was due to our insatiable dependence on antimicrobials.

Under The Microscope will be first and foremost, a blog about germs and immunology as they have been my primary focus of both research and communication for decades. In addition, as with any relationship therapy, each weekly article will help to "get to know your partner better". To achieve this, I'll be featuring articles from the literature and putting the spotlight on people who also wish to improve our connection with microbes. The topics will also span different sectors. Health will play a primary role but microbial involvement in agriculture, economic sustainability, technology, and even the economy will be discussed.

I’ll also be sure to provide as many links as possible not only to the original article or website, but to complementary sources of information. My hope is that the few minutes reading the blog post offers the potential for more reading afterwards. In that regard, I will do my best to provide articles and other literature from open access sources. It may not always be possible but it is my promise.

When I was first asked to write with Popular Science, I was thrilled. Since its inception in 1872, it has been the home for people looking for a scientific roadmap to the future. As I personally believe that germs and our relationship with them will play a significant role in our future, there is no better home for this blog. As with any experimentation in a lab, there is always the need to look at how the results will contribute to what comes next. The same will be for Under The Microscope. While the articles may be rooted in the present or near past, there will always be a focus on the future and how what we have learned today will help us improve our bonds tomorrow.

I look forward to our journey together and to our collective appreciation for germs and even better relationship with them.