Sunday, July 3, 2016

Teddy Roosevelt vs the Persister bacteria

Though 'persister' bacteria existed long before Teddy Roosevelt was born, they were not discovered until about twenty five years after he died, so he never lived long enough to see one of his many pet certitudes about 'Nature' being questioned by Nature.

Teddy Roosevelt campaigned long and hard against men and women who refused to have lots of children, or even no children at all.

He labelled them all as weaklings and defectives, traitors to the race and said their behavior was an affront to Nature and sure to lead to race suicide. But was he scientifically accurate in saying so ?

Persister bacteria - first described in 1942 by Dr Gladys Hobby of Henry Dawson's wartime penicillin team - are a very small but also very constant presence in bacteria populations, bacteria that don't do that most characteristic behavior of all other bacteria : make more babies incessantly.

We are not talking about the general fact that bacteria that can reproduce in as little as twenty minutes can also hold off for hundreds of years, if food is short.

It is not so much that persisters totally fail to reproduce but that they do so very very slowly, in bacterial terms, even when conditions are stable and food is plentifully.

They are indeed one of Roosevelt's 'defective' beings, in the least prejudicial and most accurate sense of that word.

But their continued existence is not an inexplicable aberration but rather an example of one of Nature's widest and most enduring general rules.

Counterintuitively, in terms of evolutionary survival, it actually makes sense for species to be cautious and risk adverse in good times and yet to be willing to throw caution to the winds and be willing to take big unknown risks in bad times.

To go on as before is to die out for sure, but by hedging one's risks by being willing to try anything and everything might just pay off with continued survival.

Animals, insects, microbes and quite recently, even plants have displayed this behavior, known as RST, Risk Sensitivity Theory.

Microbes display it when in times of great stress, their ability to repair mistakes in DNA and RNA reproduction greatly worsens and more and more genetic aberrations emerge.

These aberrations can be as simple as a gene that is normally kept switched off is suddenly full on.

It only takes one of these genetic monsters, revealing an unrivalled ability to survive the stress, to ensure the survival of the entire bacteria species.

Because when good times return, the aberration individuals are usually 'repaired' out of existence as the gene is again shut back off -- or it may simply be that they reproduce too slowly, when compared to their other bacteria compatriots common in times of plentiful food.

The persisters are one such example : the short term doses of antibiotics that bacterial competitors exude into the common living fluid when the overall food is short in supply kills only bacteria actively and rapidly reproducing and thus leaves most of the very slowly reproducing persisters unharmed.

But when new food arrives and the reproductively-costly antibiotics are shut back off, the persisters slowly reproduce their kin - most of whom are not persisters like their parents and so rapid reproduction resumes as normal.

It is very hard to think of a close human equivalent for this bacteria behavior.

Perhaps the situation when two nations are at war and both are very short of food, but one side has a lot more single young men with no small children of their own.

Each young man is made a soldier and is given food but no scarce food needs to be allocated to their non-existence children, children who can not in any case fight away.

In a short war, this fact might give this nation an advantage.

But in more human terms, Risk Sensitivity Theory suggests that counterintuitively, human societies should not seek greater conformity in total war crisis.

Rather instead, societies hoping to win wars of life and death survival should encourage dissent and questioning of the conventional and should seek out all sorts of normally outcast people and ideas to bring inside the national Big Tent.

Henry Dawson was a scientist more likely to reify practise than theory so we can only examine what he actually did, to act as a stand in or surrogate for what he perhaps thought.

We know that Dawson went very much against the very fibre of his profession, at the very apex of Modernity, by preferring to study non-virile and non-virulent bacteria.

He made his mark studying, not the assumed normal "S" forms bacteria but rather the "R", "M","L" and "P" forms before his early death stopped all further investigation.

One of those, the "M" form, is more virulent than the "S" norm but the other three are decidedly less virulent or virile.

The survival of bacteria into the present day was already inexplicable, based on the conventional view of Evolution as leading to ever newer, bigger, stronger more complex beings inevitably replacing the older, smaller, weaker and more simple beings.

Bacteria being the very oldest, smallest, weakest, simplest of all life forms, there was no good (Darwin-generated) answer why they were still around, let alone found everywhere on earth and in numbers of individuals that were millions of times more plentiful than any other species.

Dawson knew of this paradox, but he had another big one to explore.

Why did Bacteria, surviving for four billion years under very harsh natural conditions, still have at least as many defective variants as did modern western society ?

For the Darwinist majority of scientists claimed it was only modern western societies' cosy cosseted conditions that allowed human defectives to survive long enough to reproduce.

They further claimed - again without proof - that this rising tide of rapidly reproducing human defectives would soon lead to white race suicide.

Claims that defectives persist in human society, generation after generation after generation, is actually hard to prove ---- giving the slowness we modern middle class types reproduce even one generation : about the same time length as the life career of a typical scientist.

But some very rapidly growing bacteria species can actually give forth a new generation in one millionth the time a middle class western professional family might do so.

Dawson had thus repeatedly seen how defective bacteria were reproduced generation onto forever generation without appearing to harm the overall bacteria species.

Now, an even further Darwinian heresy emerged : for Dawson found more and more evidence that variation and defectives seemed to actually help, rather than hinder, the bacteria's ability to survive tough times.

So : R forms don't have conventional 'virulence factors' and thus don't provoke human immune systems to attack them, L forms lack cell walls so can't be attacked by antibodies IDing bacteria by their cell wall material and slow reproducing P forms can't be hit by rapid-reproduction-oriented killer antibiotics.

I could also throw in Dawson's pioneering research on other sophisticated bacterial survival techniques from the supposedly 'primitive' microbes : HGT, Quorum Sensing, Molecular Mimicry, but you get my point.

Perhaps all this mounting evidence did produce some sort of theory in Dawson's mind but he seemed to have kept strictly shtum about it.

But two practises of his during WWII, maintained against fierce pushback from his bosses and the Allied governments, hint at what it might have looked like.

Firstly, Dawson was initially and for many years, the only scientist in the entire world convinced that the 'primitive' penicillium fungus were probably better at making penicillin, after millions of years of practise, than even the best human chemists would be at first.

He was thus an early, steadfast and strong advocate for immediately mass producing natural penicillin to use to save lives during the war, rather than wait for for chemists to commercially synthesize and patent it - something they still haven't done, even now.

Secondly, Dawson strongly opposed the semi-secret plan of the Allied governments that only enough wartime penicillin should be produced to just treat lightly wounded frontline troops judged capable of returning to immediate combat duty.

Dawson, by contrast, wanted wartime penicillin to be plentiful enough and cheap enough to treat all humanity - not just all the troops and all useful civilians but even civilians considered to be worse than useless towards the war effort and thus not a priority for scarce medical resources.

Into Dawson's wartime Big Tent solution to defeat the Axis went not just 1A troops, 1A war work civilians and 1A medicines but also 4F medicines like impure natural penicillin and human 4Fs like the incurably-useless-for-war-work SBEs - a disproportional number of whom were from outcast groups like Jews, Blacks, the poor and immigrants.

Many decent people during WWII felt that morally, defectives shouldn't be left to die just because it was wartime, despite sincerely believing it to be bad news biologically for overall humanity.

Only Dawson felt that not only was it morally wrong, it was even biologically wrong - because times of crisis call for actively seeking out and exalting all the beings and ideas considered deviant and defective.

Dawson thought that leaving 'defectives' and 'deviants' like Alan Turing, an invert, or Stephen Hawking, a cripple, to die during WWII to save scarce medical resources would only have hurt - not helped - humanity.

Teddy Roosevelt would have strongly disagreed with Dawson but I think time has proven Dawson amply right ....

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