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My Friend the Microbe

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For Christmas my son gave me athlete's foot. Not the condition, but a stuffed polyester version of the microbe that causes it. Greatly enlarged, of course, and with beady eyes. What you might call a teddygerm. A company in Delaware sells the little fellas — not only athlete's foot but also flu, earache, bad breath, ulcer, black death, flesh-eating and so on. Joke gift, yes, but in this season of peace, love and human disastrousness, bacteria have been all over the news.

We learned this week that obesity, in people and mice, might be caused, or anyway encouraged, by a type of bacteria called Firmicutes. What these microbes do, for reasons of their own, is not to make you firmer or cuter, but to increase your absorption of calories, so you get fatter on the same amount of food. They don't care any more about your waistline than mice, or your holiday visitors, care about whose house this is. They just know that in a fatso, they thrive.

I grant you, the popular media sometimes strain credulity when they portray microscopic life in terms we can understand. An item on eMaxHealth.com this week began as follows: "Like shoppers in search of the perfect pair of jeans, the body's special immune system cells apparently have assistants that help them rapidly 'try on' different pieces of a microbe to find one piece that's shaped just right to fit their cellular skins."

But it's human nature to anthropomorphize other life forms, even though they are only 200 nanometers wide. That is the width of newly discovered microbes that may be the smallest form of cellular life, according to a story in the New York Times this week. In "drainage water as caustic as battery acid," these hard-ass teeny-weenies have the flair to form "a pink scum on green pools."

Can we learn their secrets, so that we, too, may flourish in toxic pools? The Times story doesn't go there, but it does say that the discovery of the se doughty minutiae "could bear on estimates of the pervasiveness of exotic microbial life, which some experts suspect forms a hidden biosphere extending down miles [beneath the earth] whose total mass may exceed that of all surface life." Oh, and another study reported this week that the air we breathe is full of a far greater diversity of bacteria than we have known, including bacteria causing botulism and typhus, "lifted into the air from soil, lakes, sewer plants..." Also, meningitis bacteria were found on a man who had been playing Santa Claus at a Toledo, Ohio, mall.

Microbes! They're everywhere, they're tougher and more deeply rooted than we are — and maybe, just maybe, they're going to be a lot easier to work with than, say, Sunnis and Shi'ites. The Associated Press this week quoted a microbiologist as saying, "For decades, doctors have treated bacteria in a 'warlike' manner, yet recent research shows that 'most encounters we have with microbes are very beneficial.'"

Not only that, but according to the MIT Technology Review, researchers are developing ways to make the little rascals friendlier — injecting bits of DNA into bacteria to make them "glow, detect light," or even smell sweet. "Minty-fresh foot fungus" is projected as a real possibility. Of course, so was democracy in Iraq, but why drag that in?

My Christmas microbe's scientific name, according to his tag, is "Trichophyton mentagrophyte." I'm going to ignore the tricho and the phyton and the phyte and just call him Menty.