[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Life-saving alliance: people, germs

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Life-saving alliance: people, germs

A wire-service story describes recent research at the University of Illinois. It seems that scientists there have discovered that a protein called azurin, which is produced by bacteria, can be used to kill cancer cells. This is a great step forward in the relationship between germs and mankind.

People and germs have so much in common and play such important roles in each other's history that it's hard to understand why people generally are so fearful toward germs.

It didn't start out that way. Our hate and fear of microorganisms is an acquired trait. Look at little babies. They'll stick anything in their mouths no matter where it's been as long as it gives them a bit of pleasure. As they grow up, they constantly hear adults yelling at them, frightening them with admonitions like "Don't eat that piece of candy you just dropped on the floor! You'll catch something and die!" This drives the kids to become even more finicky than the grown-ups.

By the time they are adults they have reverted to many of their original instincts while continuing to practice, and especially preach, self-contradictory anti-germism: They'll throw away the vitamin pill they dropped on the floor rather than just blowing off the dust and swallowing it; at the same time they'll stick just about anything in their mouths no matter where it's been just as long as it gives them a bit of pleasure.

Like people, most germs are really quite nice and helpful. It's the few nasty ones that give a bad name to the whole lot, and when a nasty one comes along, people tend to overreact: We get a little intestinal upset and we take powerful antibiotics that wipe out all the germs that live in there, including the ones that help digest our food.

We should be more appreciative of microorganisms. Just look at how so many of them have helped us down the ages. If it weren't for microorganisms, we wouldn't have clabbered milk, yogurt or cheese; we wouldn't have kimchi or doenjang; we wouldn't have booze. For the most part, even microorganisms that don't help us don't harm us, either. There are myriads of bacteria, viruses, fungal spores and other germs living right on our very own bodies (yes, even after a bath). Hardly any of them bother us.

What do we have in common with viruses? They change the genetic material in a cell in order to get it to produce the proteins they need. In the last few years, scientists have succeeded in changing the genetic material in goats to make them produce milk that is more healthful for humans, in plants to get them to yield more, even in pigs to get them to grow organs that are transplantable into humans. Are scientists so different from viruses?

Remember the TV commercials where the monstrous Mr. Tooth Decay would come around to prey on little children, and along would come the Toothpaste Superman to destroy Mr. Tooth Decay? This is an unfair depiction of the organisms that cause tooth caries and introduces an irrelevant element of violence when the issue at hand is dental health. From the viewpoint of these bacteria, they are not causing cavities; they are making homes for themselves. They find a huge, warm, moist cavern with vast ranges of ivory mountains having deposits of yummy things to eat here and there that are replenished three or more times a day. Of course they want to move in. Naturally, with all the severe earthquakes and floods and other natural disasters that go on in their cavernous world, they find it easier to hold on to their homes if they dig little grottoes for themselves in the ivory cliffs and hills.

Just imagine what it must be like for these hapless creatures when you finally decide to go to the dentist. They know something is wrong when that bright light shines in on their usually dim environment. Then disaster strikes. A gigantic curved metal pipe descends and sucks up all the water that flowed through the valleys between the gums and the cheeks. A humongous whirling demon that makes a terrifying noise pokes and grinds at the cavern homes. Torrents of wind and water wash away their cousins and aunts and the precious food deposits. The few survivors are left to start over again from scratch in a world where all their dwellings have been plugged up with a poisonous mercury alloy. Lucky for them we all hate going to the dentist.

It's good to see that mankind is at last learning to understand germs better. Perhaps through new alliances with them we can prevent or eliminate diseases without resorting to such draconian, destructive measures as organ removal, chemicals or radiation.

* The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Daily. His e-mail address is gary@korealore.com.

by Gary Rector

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