By Chet Yarbrough
Mysteries of the Microscopic World
By: Bruce E. Fleury (Great Courses)
Lecturer-Professor Bruce E. Fleury
Bruce E. Fleury (Professor of Practice in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University)
“Mysteries of the Microscopic World” is a reflection on the “The Invisible Realm”, the world of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa.
It is somewhat dated because of today’s history of Covid19. However, Fleury offers a modern understanding of pandemics and the role germs play in human life.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723)
Fleury explores a world unseen until the 17th century. Antony van Leeuwenhoek is identified as the first to see the “…Microscopic World” in 1683.
However, the microscopic world was not considered important until the 19th century when puerperal fever was found to be caused by germs. A germ theory of disease originated with Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician in the 1840s. Many babies were dying from puerperal fever because doctors were going straight from deceased patients’ autopsies to delivery operating rooms.
An interesting side note by Fleury is Semmelweis’s germ theory required careful hand washing before delivering babies. Washing hands is still not carefully followed, even by the medical profession. Fleury suggests only 50% of doctors and nurses properly wash their hands.
In the late 1850s Louis Pasteur suggested the spread of microorganisms (germs) could explain infectious disease. Pasteur, and later Robert Koch, began to isolate bacteria of diseases like anthrax, TB, and cholera. The race for understanding the microscopic world’s relationship to disease is launched.
Fleury explains this microscopic world is not only a disease producer. It also aids human existence by offering microorganisms that get rid of wastes and remove toxic chemicals from the body. Fleury notes some humans die from microorganisms, but they cannot live without them.
Fleury explains how the microscopic world follows the same Darwinian evolutionary path as the macroscopic world. The microscopic world, like the animal world, evolves with random adaptation that sustains all life.
The two edges of this microscopic world can cure or kill. Fleury explains how this unseen world evolves in the same way the animal kingdom evolves. Today’s Covid19 virus changes to preserve itself. Covid19 evolves like any life force to become resistant to current drug treatment. Pfizer and other drug manufacturers are tasked with modification of their drug formulas to defeat viral and bacterial evolution.
In Fleury’s history of pandemics, listeners/readers will find interesting facts that parallel today’s Covid19’ experience. A striking parallel is the 1918 Flu pandemic. It killed an estimated 50-100 million people.
Today the world has lost over 2.5 million people from Covid19, but it pales against the 1918 pandemic’ loss of an estimated 50 to 100 million people.
The 1918 world population is estimated at 1.8 billion. The world’s population today is at 7.674 billion, over a six-fold increase. Today’s 2.5 million people lost from Covid19 could become several times greater based on today’s population.
This reminds one of the Texas and Mississippi governors’ choice to return to business as usual with no mask mandates and reopened businesses.
It may be that medical science and vaccination is so much better today than in 1918, but these governors are gambling with American lives. Covid19 may kill many more.
Fleury reminds reader/listeners of the history of wars and how the microscopic world of poisons, and disease-producing germs were used to defeat combatants. He notes how small armies were able to defeat large armies. Fleury tells stories of smaller military forces throwing bags filled with poisonous snakes into enemy camps to create chaos and death, lethal gas use in explosive devices that are thrown into enemy foxholes, and deadly smallpox impregnated blankets given to native Americans by American settlers. He notes how small expeditionary invasions decimated empires by introducing germs that came from their home countries. Explorers and soldiers were carriers of germs that had never been seen in the new world. Millions have died from this newly weaponized unseen world. Fleury notes that biological research and warfare are ongoing threats to the human race.
In the Sunday NYT’s on 3/7/21, an article criticizes the use of public funds to stockpile an Anthrax vaccine when so many problems have arisen in the fight against Covid19. The complaint largely revolves around one company’s high profitability and government influence in preparing an anthrax antidote stockpile to protect against biological attack by terrorists.
Fleury notes that anthrax bacterium is “…a perennial favorite in every nation’s biological arsenal.” Anthrax causes a rapid and painful death within 12-24 hours and the bacterium can last for 40-80 years in soil.
One has to wonder why can’t government “chew gum and walk” at the same time. Stockpiling an Anthrax antidote and being prepared for a Covid19 type of pandemic could be done at the same time. After all, America is the richest nation in the world.
Many presume Aids has been cured because it is not in the press like it used to be. Something not widely known is that Aids has no known cure. It remains a killer. Only palliative treatment has been found to extend life and Fleury notes the treatment is quite expensive. Aids is caused by a germ that attacks the immune system. It is introduced through sexual contact or re-use of hypodermic needles.
Aids eventually kills nearly all Aids carriers, either from cancer or some other disease that takes advantage of a carrier’s compromised immune system. Fleury notes an exception is a small minority of carriers with a genetic variation that allows them to live a long life.
Fleury explains there is a race between microbes and humans. As antibiotic treatment improves, microbes mutate into strains that resist treatment. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. Fleury implies there is a natural balance among all living things. Humans may be destined for extinction, but Fleury reminds us of the myth of Pandora. She left hope in the bottom of the box when all the evils were unloosed on the world.
World leaders struggle with opening their economies at the right time, in the right way, to avoid a return to rising death rates from the Omicron varient of Covid19.