Friendly Microbes

Sir Alexander Fleming announced his discovery of the mold byproduct penicillin on this day in 1929. In the decades since, the superstar of antibiotics has evolved to ever-wider and more sophisticated forms — and the bacteria have responded with super-strains of their own. “Given how rapidly these organisms can evolve around any biochemical weapon we throw at them,” says Jessica Snyder Sachs in Good Germs, Bad Germs, medical science is beginning to take a new approach, one that avoids “carpet-bombing the body’s normal resident microbes whenever we treat infections caused by the occasional invader”:

No one yearns for the days before antibiotics, when doctors could do little more for their feverish patients than wait to see if they survived the night. Nor would any reasonable person propose that we trade modern sanitation for the epidemics of cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever and bubonic plague that began decimating populations with the advent of civilization some five thousand years ago. Instead, a scientific consensus is growing: that only by understanding the symbiotic aspects of our long-standing relationship with microbes can we find lasting solutions to infectious disease and, at the same time, rectify the imbalances that have produced a modern epidemic of allergies, auto-immune disorders and other inflammatory diseases.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at