Living in a world of pathogens

Photo of Merve Ozedmir

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On the first day of my bacterial pathogenesis class, the professor wanted to give us students a perspective on our place in the world.

“This is really the world of bacteria,” he said. “We are just living in it.”

As much as I liked this dramatic introduction to the class, I failed to see it as anything more than that: an introduction, a hook, an exaggeration. By the time I started my junior year, I was already used to professors being in love with their research, so I dismissed this remark as being a product of another obsession. I was sure that if I talked to a virology professor he would tell me that this is a world of viruses.

My knowledge on bacteria was limited: I saw them as simple germs grown in petri dishes and killed by antibiotics. I also knew their major role in the development of CRISPR, which is why, wanting to learn more about them, I had taken this class. I had no doubt bacteria would come to surprise me by the end of the semester, but to accept that this was their world on the very first day of class? That I could not do.

“This professor,” I thought, “is clearly in love with bacteria. He thinks they are cooler than us!”

Fast forward to today — after a whole semester of studying different bacterial species and the “tools of the trade” of bacterial research, I have come to appreciate these organisms in ways I could have never predicted.

Bacteria are incredibly sophisticated and diverse. They come in many different shapes and sizes. They self-organize, replicate and defend themselves. And they are able to do all of this in complex, creative ways using a unique set of tools and mechanisms.

Learning so much about bacteria made me realize how blind I had been to the world around me, all wrapped up in the chaos of human existence. Bacteria make life possible, for without them, we would cease to exist. They have been living on this planet way before we even existed, and they will likely still be here once we are all gone. This really is their home.

To underestimate these amazing organisms, to leave them unappreciated like I had done before, now seems unacceptable, almost selfish.

I was lucky that a bacterial infection had never threatened my life, so I could afford to live with such selfishness. But this attitude came to haunt me, along with many others, in early 2020, when COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic.

Although COVID-19 is caused by a virus and not a bacterium, I doubt our attitude towards the outbreak would be any different if the latter was the case.

Like many of my loved ones, I, too, was in shock. “Why is this happening?” we all kept asking. Of course, this translated into, “How is there nothing we can do? We are humans!”

This is privilege speaking. This is the privilege of living in a part of the world where health care is accessible to many and exposure to pathogens is relatively limited; bacterial infections are treated by antibiotics, viral infections are treated by antiviral drugs and vaccines are available for many common diseases.

The pandemic felt like a wake-up call: Here we were, helpless against an emerging virus we had greatly underestimated.

The scientific community, of course, was not as surprised. I realize now that those who know enough about pathogens also understand what they are capable of. Besides, various pandemics and epidemics have happened throughout history, so although the concept was new to many of us, it was not to them.

Looking back at my perspective at the start of the pandemic, or even just at the start of this spring semester, I can’t help but wonder how I ever lived with such a limited view of the world. We share this planet with so many other entities — both alive and not. Some help us stay alive, some lead an existence independent from us and some cause disease, but they are all equally important and fascinating.

Learning about bacterial pathogenesis has allowed me to not only appreciate these organisms more, but also to consider disease in a different light. Pathogens are not the bad guys. Understanding the biology behind infection and immunity made me realize that disease is not the consequence of an “attack” on our bodies by evil pathogens that want to harm us. It is an indifferent puzzle, one that scientists have been working on for decades.

As they slowly discover each piece of the puzzle and place them together, the big picture is becoming clearer: Pathogens will always be evolving around us, but so will science. Perhaps one day, we will manage to accept them as our friendly neighbors in this world.

Until then, I am content to be living in the world of bacteria. Though I am often terrified of them, my fascination reveals itself at the strangest instances. As I cook my eggs on the stove, for example, I often reflect on the many ways Salmonella bacteria invade people’s intestinal epithelium after eating undercooked eggs.

“How fascinating,” I think, smiling to myself.

Then, I increase the heat a little, cooking the eggs for an extra minute.

Just in case.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members separate from the semester’s regular opinion columnists. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.