Guy’s Newsletter: poo, pandas & cystitis

Never mind the conservational emphasis placed on pandas and orangutans; we and they are all mere ephemeral surface dwellers whose biological significance is in providing a home for the bugs in our guts. The global biomass of bacteria is, after all, larger and more diverse than all plants and animals put together; we would never have emerged from the swamp without them and will be extinct in a blink if we ever manage to kill them all. Across the world, when the poo falls, that’s when the real action starts. Each gram of soil contains about 40 million bacteria of between 2000 and 1 million species, but no-one really knows what goes on down there. My point: incredible biological processes are happening under our feet and we’re almost completely ignorant of them. As with most forms of ignorance, the result tends at best to be fear and neglect of the potential benefits, and at worst often wanton destruction of the unknown (in this case, through modern farming’s chemicals and soil compaction), until someone figures out how to make money out of enlightenment.

Despite our best efforts to destroy our soils, we might be saved from a self induced post antibiotic world where TB, cystitis and gonorrhoea are untreatable by one of those millions of unidentified soil bacteria. Like the panda, no-one has worked out how to breed them in full public view; the standard agar dish doesn’t work for 99% of soil bacteria. However if grown in a kind of bacterial hotel submerged in the soil, one such bacteria, Teixobactin, produces a new type of antibiotic which, if it proves as effective and free of side effects as it seems to be in mice, could save us from some forms antibiotic resistance.

Alternatively you could follow a 9th century medical text and take equal quantities of ox gall, wine vinegar and garlic, pound it and stew at room temperature for nine days before straining; according to two women on Radio 4, the liquid kills 99.999% of Staphylococcus aureus, though they did counsel against trying it at home. Perhaps we had better hope for our soil to saves us from the brink…if we can save the soil first.

Guy Watson