Christian Long

Paul Ewald: Asks Can We Domesticate Germs

In TED Talks on April 17, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Reflection by HERSH T.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Paul Ewald:  Asks Can We Domesticate Gems


The frightful, little known, mini-controllers of our lives. We are constantly told to watch out for bacteria and be aware of bacteria. But does this fear of bacteria simply manifest the overall human fear of something useable or unknown. After having heard Mr. Ewald, the conclusion that I drew is that very little that we can control has an effect on what the bacteria does. It relies on the massive effort of a massive number of people to make a significant change. And so, having accepted that fact, we can now dive right into the marvelous and magnificent world of bacteria.

Mr. Ewald pulls in an interesting case.

The bacteria that causes diarrhea, which is actually transmitted in three ways, like most diseases. 1. The bacteria can travel through person to person in which case the host has to be able to move around. 2. Someone can eat contaminated food which will in turn cause the sickness. And 3. The bacteria can travel through water, which is often the most common form of travel. This actually has devastating consequences when we as an observer think about it. If a person is sick, there must be someone to care for him/her obviously. This person requires many things such as food, water, warmth, etc. These must be carried to the person through say a metal pot that the family owns. And now, after the person has been helped through the pot, the pot is then cleaned. And now, whatever cleaned it is now infected. And in less advanced areas, the cleaning water is often the same as the drinking water, resulting in a widespread almost unstoppable outbreak of the disease.

The theory that Mr. Ewald brings into light is that when transmitted by water, diseases virulence is higher and the disease is more severe than in the other cases. And if the fact that the most common form of transferring the bacteria is through water than this theory is very relevant. Mr. Ewald’s personal idea is that maybe, by blocking water-borne transmissions, then we could potentially reduce the virulence of the disease. Which is a very good thought however, as he is well aware of, organisms take an extremely long time to change and adapt to different situations.

But, if they did transform relatively quickly, then we could potentially make bacteria evolve so as not to harm us.

So, the next step in any scientific process is to conduct an experiment. Mr. Ewald takes a bacterium known as Vibrio choleri which is the species of bacteria which causes cholera. The main reason for choosing it is because we know specifically why it’s so harmful to humans. By producing a toxin which is released when the bacteria arrives in our intestines, it can cause fluid from our intestines to flood out of our bodies.

The next part of the video made me slightly uncomfortable. Mr. Ewald talks about how the perfect experiment would be to place the bacteria in a country with an undeveloped water sanitation and protection program and one with a relatively good one. He makes a joke about the ethics about it and the audience laughs but then, he talks about how the disease got into an area which was perfect for the experiment. And Mr. Ewald promises he wasn’t a part of it but says that he is not averse to making sure his prediction is right.

This sentence made me wonder is scientists truly are the cold, emotionless people that society has begun to make them look like.

Just a side thought, the incredibly interesting part was the fact that he was right. In Peru, with its low quality water regulations, the disease gained virulence and caused more problems than in Chile which had relatively standard regulations. This information is so stunning that I was expecting lights to flash and people to scream but the TED audience must be so accustomed to incredible ideas that they can control their emotions.

This means, that with a little more experimentation, we could theoretically make a disease benign.

Mr. Ewald makes a good point concerning a very interesting thing which happened in northern Tennessee. About one third of the people were infected with malaria, and so the government decided to mosquito proof the houses that they were in. When the mosquito-proofing was done, they found that the malaria had been completely eradicated. Mr. Ewald notes that this should be done in areas where it can feasibly be done however, in extreme places (i.e. Nigeria) where mosquitos cannot be contained, and then the evolution towards mildness should be contemplated.

Mr. Ewald at the beginning makes a point about how evolutionary biology is a rather difficult field to get ahead in because of people “defending their turf,” as he puts it. When we think about the problems that Darwin himself caused and the subsequent debate over evolution we see a pattern emerge. The scientific proof continually grows while close-minded people refuse to discuss certain things because of how it affects their beliefs. While beliefs are truly important and I respect whatever someone believes, these things should not force someone to keep their mind closed. As the great Francis Bacon said, “Let the mind be enlarged … to the grandeur of the mysteries, and not the mysteries contracted to the narrowness of the mind.” Thank you.


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