Published August 22, 2016
Dr. Jack Gilbert wants to make our hospitals dirty.
His idea runs counter to hundreds of years of scientific practice. Since a surgeon named Joseph Lister became the first to use antiseptic techniques in 1867 and save thousands of lives, modern medicine has worked tirelessly to create sterile medical environments — free of micro-organisms.
It all changed when Dr. Gilbert, associate director of the Institute for Genomic and Systems Biology at Argonne National Laboratory, began studying dolphins in 2014. He noticed that the animals were much healthier the “dirtier” the aquarium water was.
“We saw the benefit in increasing the microbial diversity of the home,” explained Gilbert. According to Dr. Gilbert, the lack of a rich microbial ecosystem, especially in our hospitals, might be causing more harm than good, leading to drug resistant strains of powerful superbugs and infection-causing viruses.
Science writer Ed Yong agrees with Dr. Gilbert, featuring him in his book, “I Contain Multitudes,” which tries to change our minds about bacteria. Yong points outs that “there are more bacteria in your gut than there are stars in our galaxy,” and of these fewer than 100 species of bacteria compromise our health. The rest, which coexist in and among us, aren’t just harmless — they protect us and make us who we are.
Every square inch of space contains billions of microbes— even seemingly desolate landscapes of Arctic ice or Saharan sand. Before humans, microbes were the only stuff of life on Earth.