The race for life: Humans vs Microbial world (the unfair race)


Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is the idea that species that acquire adaptations favourable to their environment will transmit those adaptations to their offspring. Hence, only species with those favourable adaptations will survive. In the wake of the publication of the theory of natural selection, Herbert Spencer used the term ”survival of the fittest” as he compared Darwin’s theory to an economic principle in one of his books. This phenomenon is overwhelmingly true when one consider the struggle for economic stability, power, fame and even life. In global economic crises, the so-called economic super powers of the world will hardly feel the heat of the crises while those economically disadvantaged nation will crumble and hunger and starvation become the order of the day. This is one of the simplest analogy in explaining the ”survival of the fittest” phenomenon in economics. However, organisms also behave in a similar way. The planet earth is a habitat for so many different organisms and each keeps struggling to maintain life. Although, nature shall always take its course no matter how long any organism lives but each of these organisms want to remain the last to die. Even organisms of the same specie compete for life. What is really intriguing is that, even the oldest organism after enjoying all the life on earth, still doesn’t want to leave for the young ones to grow and have their own part of the ”party”.

In this race to be the last to die, we the humans face very stubborn and wise opponents called microbes who enjoy using us to reach the finishing lane first. Imagine racing towards the finishing lane while you are carrying your competitor right on your head. He is jumping and so relaxed because no matter what, he can either reach the finish lane at the same time and speed as you or come out with position first. That is the real agony of such a race. Moreover, God gave humans a tool in the form of knowledge that provides us the ways to avoid and race even faster than the microbes. That knowledge is science and we will ever rely on it to fight back.

Medical advances have enabled man to study and characterize microbes with the sole intention of finding ways to either eradicate or protect ourselves from the microbial world. Despite all these advances, microbes keep worrying us. They change their behaviour and structure in order to evade the host’s defence system and even some therapies that were once deadly to them. This behavioural and structural adaptation is what cost we the humans a great deal as we have to go back to the drawing board to devise new and more efficient strategies so as to live longer. To explain this fight back mechanism, let us use a 200 meter race as an example. In the men’s 200 meter (Jamaica) final back in 2012, Yohan Blake defeated Bolt and left the world surprised. Bolt hit back in the recent (2016) 100 meter race in Kingston by defeating his compatriot. This is done by undertaking training methods that will increase Bolt’s speed while helping him to overcome Blake’s stamina on the track. ”Now this is a real fight back where the fittest comes victorious”.

One of the saddest things is we the humans are unfortunately and unknowingly responsible making these microbes fit enough to reach the finishing lane of the race before us. A lay man may ask how this is possible. The answer to that may lie in how we use the antimicrobial therapies (drugs). People can buy these drugs from the counter without taking correct prescription from a physician. This is one of the ways to tell the microbe ”enjoy living in me”. World Health Organization (WHO) regional office for Africa reported that between 2008 and 2009, 451 isolates of Shigella bacterium responsible for diarrhoea were identified from 18 countries and 78 % of these were resistant to the drug used to treat this condition. This is as a result of changes the Shigella bacterium underwent to avoid the killing effect of the antibiotic.

Few weeks ago, I witnessed a poster presentation by one PhD student in MRC on iron and infection. He showed that iron is a necessity for both bacterial and human’s growth. We both need this element to carry out certain metabolic processed that are essential to life. Iron is a nutrient which is sometimes supplemented to pregnant women during their antenatal visits. What will then happen to those people carrying microbes that are pathogenic? Here is the answer; these microbes will compete with the human for the available iron and if they win, they will eventually cause disease and become the fittest. Hence they survive and we perhaps will die. The truth is we shouldn’t think every microbe is bad. Some of them such as nitrogen fixing bacteria and harmless E.Coli are in truth essential in helping us the humans to live fitter for the race against the ”Bad” microbes.

We must now be aware that we have to be vigilant enough in order to be victorious in the race against the microbes. Prescribing or taking antibiotics inappropriately is like handing over the sword to the microbes and asking them to wipe away homo sapiens on the face of planet earth. That should be regarded as a crime against humanity. We must also keep investing in the future to ensure continuous availability of experts to lead the fight against the microbial world. This can only be done by training and educating the young ones who are ambitious enough to withstand the challenge of the battle. It is only then, we shall declare ourselves fit enough to race with the microbial world and the theory of natural selection will be in our favour.

Baboucarr JB Touray is a Laboratory Technician @ MRCG and Student of The University of Westminster.