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Cry ‘Havoc’…

June 2, 2011

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Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war — Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I

A wastewater treatment plant’s job description is pretty straightforward: Remove contaminants from sewage so it can be returned to the environment without harming people or wildlife.

But a new study suggests that the treatment process can have an unintended consequence of promoting the spread of extra-hardy bacteria.

Some bugs are resistant to antibiotics, so they dodge the medical bullets that wipe out others. The more drugs that are used, the more robust they become. Since bacteria reproduce quickly – one organism might turn into a billion overnight – and they share DNA with others, antibiotic-resistant genes spread like Darwinian wildfire when conditions are right. — Scientific American, 16.4.09

The World Health Organisation has said that the E coli bacterium responsible for an outbreak that has left 17 dead and infected hundreds in Europe is a new strain that has never been seen before.

Preliminary genetic sequencing suggests that the strain is a mutant form of two different E coli bacteria, with lethal genes that could explain why the Europe-wide outbreak appears to be so big and dangerous, the agency said.

Hilde Kruse, a food safety expert at the WHO told The Associated Press that “this is a unique strain that has never been isolated from patients before”.

She added that the new strain has “various characteristics that make it more virulent and toxin-producing”. — The Grauniad, today

Bitter Resistance

by

Bruce Sterling

Two hundred thousand bacteria could easily lurk under the top half
of this semicolon; but for the sake of focussing on a subject that’s too
often out of sight and out of mind, let’s pretend otherwise. Let’s pretend
that a bacterium is about the size of a railway tank car.

Now that our fellow creature the bacterium is no longer three
microns long, but big enough to crush us, we can get a firmer mental grip
on the problem at hand. The first thing we notice is that the bacterium is
wielding long, powerful whips that are corkscrewing at a blistering
12,000 RPM. When it’s got room and a reason to move, the bacterium can
swim ten body-lengths every second. The human equivalent would be
sprinting at forty miles an hour.

The butt-ends of these spinning whips are firmly socketed inside
rotating, proton-powered, motor-hubs. It seems very unnatural for a
living creature to use rotating wheels as organs, but bacteria are serenely
untroubled by our parochial ideas of what is natural.

The bacterium, constantly chugging away with powerful interior
metabolic factories, is surrounded by a cloud of its own greasy spew. The
rotating spines, known as flagella, are firmly embedded in the bacterium’s
outer hide, a slimy, lumpy, armored bark. Studying it closely (we evade
the whips and the cloud of mucus), we find the outer cell wall to be a
double-sided network of interlocking polymers, two regular, almost
crystalline layers of macromolecular chainmail, something like a tough
plastic wiffleball.

The netted armor, wrinkled into warps and bumps, is studded with
hundreds of busily sucking and spewing orifices. These are the
bacterium’s “porins,” pores made from wrapped-up protein membrane,
something like damp rolled-up newspapers that protrude through the
armor into the world outside.

On our scale of existence, it would be very hard to drink through a
waterlogged rolled-up newspaper, but in the tiny world of a bacterium,
osmosis is a powerful force. The osmotic pressure inside our bacterium
can reach 70 pounds per square inch, five times atmospheric pressure.
Under those circumstances, it makes a lot of sense to be shaped like a
tank car.

Our bacterium boasts strong, highly sophisticated electrochemical
pumps working through specialized fauceted porins that can slurp up and
spew out just the proper mix of materials. When it’s running its osmotic
pumps in some nutritious broth of tasty filth, our tank car can pump
enough juice to double in size in a mere twenty minutes. And there’s
more: because in that same twenty minutes, our bacterial tank car can
build in entire duplicate tank car from scratch.

Inside the outer wall of protective bark is a greasy space full of
chemically reactive goo. It’s the periplasm. Periplasm is a treacherous
mess of bonding proteins and digestive enzymes, which can yank tasty
fragments of gunk right through the exterior hide, and break them up for
further assimilation, rather like chemical teeth. The periplasm also
features chemoreceptors, the bacterial equivalent of nostrils or taste-
buds.

Beneath the periplasmic goo is the interior cell membrane, a tender
and very lively place full of elaborate chemical scaffolding, where pump
and assembly-work goes on.

Inside the interior membrane is the cytoplasm, a rich ointment of
salts, sugars, vitamins, proteins, and fats, the tank car’s refinery
treasure-house.

If our bacterium is lucky, it has some handy plasmids in its custody.
A plasmid is an alien DNA ring, a kind of fly-by-night genetic franchise
which sets up work in the midst of somebody else’s sheltering cytoplasm.
If the bacterium is unlucky, it’s afflicted with a bacteriophage, a virus
with the modus operandi of a plasmid but its own predatory agenda.

And the bacterium has its own native genetic material. Eukaryotic
cells — we humans are made from eukaryotic cells — possess a neatly
defined nucleus of DNA, firmly coated in a membrane shell. But bacteria
are prokaryotic cells, the oldest known form of life, and they have an
attitude toward their DNA that is, by our standards, shockingly
promiscuous. Bacterial DNA simply sprawls out amid the cytoplasmic
goo like a circular double-helix of snarled and knotted Slinkies.

Any plasmid or transposon wandering by with a pair of genetic
shears and a zipper is welcome to snip some data off or zip some data in,
and if the mutation doesn’t work, well, that’s just life. A bacterium
usually has 200,000 or so clone bacterial sisters around within the space
of a pencil dot, who are more than willing to take up the slack from any
failed experiment in genetic recombination. When you can clone yourself
every twenty minutes, shattering the expected laws of Darwinian heredity
merely adds spice to life.

Bacteria live anywhere damp. In water. In mud. In the air, as
spores and on dust specks. In melting snow, in boiling volcanic springs. In
the soil, in fantastic numbers. All over this planet’s ecosystem, any liquid
with organic matter, or any solid foodstuff with a trace of damp in it,
anything not salted, mummified, pickled, poisoned, scorching hot or frozen
solid, will swarm with bacteria if exposed to air. Unprotected food
always spoils if it’s left in the open. That’s such a truism of our lives
that it may seem like a law of physics, something like gravity or entropy;
but it’s no such thing, it’s the relentless entrepreneurism of invisible
organisms, who don’t have our best interests at heart.

Bacteria live on and inside human beings. They always have;
bacteria were already living on us long, long before our species became
human. They creep onto us in the first instants in which we are held to
our mother’s breast. They live on us, and especially inside us, for as long
as we live. And when we die, then other bacteria do their living best to
recycle us.

An adult human being carries about a solid pound of commensal
bacteria in his or her body; about a hundred trillion of them. Humans have
a whole garden of specialized human-dwelling bacteria — tank-car E. coli,
balloon-shaped staphylococcus, streptococcus, corynebacteria,
micrococcus, and so on. Normally, these lurkers do us little harm. On the
contrary, our normal human-dwelling bacteria run a kind of protection
racket, monopolizing the available nutrients and muscling out other rival
bacteria that might want to flourish at our expense in a ruder way.

But bacteria, even the bacteria that flourish inside us all our lives,
are not our friends. Bacteria are creatures of an order vastly different
from our own, a world far, far older than the world of multicellular
mammals. Bacteria are vast in numbers, and small, and fetid, and
profoundly unsympathetic.

So our tank car is whipping through its native ooze, shuddering from
the jerky molecular impacts of Brownian motion, hunting for a
chemotactic trail to some richer and filthier hunting ground, and
periodically peeling off copies of itself. It’s an enormously fast-paced
and frenetic existence. Bacteria spend most of their time starving,
because if they are well fed, then they double in number every twenty
minutes, and this practice usually ensures a return to starvation in pretty
short order. There are not a lot of frills in the existence of bacteria.
Bacteria are extremely focussed on the job at hand. Bacteria make ants
look like slackers.

And so it went in the peculiar world of our acquaintance the tank
car, a world both primitive and highly sophisticated, both frenetic and
utterly primeval. Until an astonishing miracle occurred. The miracle of
“miracle drugs,” antibiotics.

Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, and the power
of the sulfonamides was recognized by drug company researchers in 1935,
but antibiotics first came into general medical use in the 1940s and 50s.
The effects on the hidden world of bacteria were catastrophic. Bacteria
which had spent many contented millennia decimating the human race
were suddenly and swiftly decimated in return. The entire structure of
human mortality shifted radically, in a terrific attack on bacteria from
the world of organized intelligence.

At the beginning of this century, back in the pre-antibiotic year of
1900, four of the top ten leading causes of death in the United States
were bacterial. The most prominent were tuberculosis (“the white
plague,” Mycobacterium tuberculosis) and pneumonia (Streptococcus
pneumoniae, Pneumococcus)
. The death rate in 1900 from
gastroenteritis (Escherichia coli, various Campylobacter species,
etc.) was higher than that for heart disease. The nation’s number ten
cause of death was diphtheria (Corynebacterium diphtheriae). Bringing
up the bacterial van were gonorrhea, meningitis, septicemia, dysentery,
typhoid fever, whooping cough, and many more.

At the end of the century, all of these festering bacterial afflictions
(except pneumonia) had vanished from the top ten. They’d been replaced
by heart disease, cancer, stroke, and even relative luxuries of
post-industrial mortality, such as accidents, homicide and suicide. All
thanks to the miracle of antibiotics.

Penicillin in particular was a chemical superweapon of devastating
power. In the early heyday of penicillin, the merest trace of this
substance entering a cell would make the hapless bacterium literally
burst. This effect is known as “lysing.”

Penicillin makes bacteria lyse because of a chemical structure
called “beta-lactam.” Beta-lactam is a four-membered cyclic amide ring,
a molecular ring which bears a fatal resemblance to the chemical
mechanisms a bacterium uses to build its cell wall.

Bacterial cell walls are mostly made from peptidoglycan, a plastic-
like molecule chained together to form a tough, resilient network. A
bacterium is almost always growing, repairing damage, or reproducing,
so there are almost always raw spots in its cell wall that require
construction work.

It’s a sophisticated process. First, fragments of not-yet-peptided
glycan are assembled inside the cytoplasm. Then the glycan chunks are
hauled out to the cell wall by a chemical scaffolding of lipid carrier
molecules, and they are fitted in place. Lastly, the peptidoglycan is
busily knitted together by catalyzing enzymes and set to cure.

But beta-lactam is a spanner in the knitting-works, which attacks
the enzyme which links chunks of peptidoglycan together. The result is
like building a wall of bricks without mortar; the unlinked chunks of
glycan break open under osmotic pressure, and the cell spews out its
innards catastrophically, and dies.

Gram-negative bacteria, of the tank-car sort we have been
describing, have a double cell wall, with an outer armor plus the inner cell
membrane, rather like a rubber tire with an inner tube. They can
sometimes survive a beta-lactam attack, if they don’t leak to death. But
gram-positive bacteria are more lightly built and rely on a single wall
only, and for them a beta-lactam puncture is a swift kiss of death.

Beta-lactam can not only mimic, subvert and destroy the assembly
enzymes, but it can even eat away peptide-chain mortar already in place.
And since mammalian cells never use any peptidoglycans, they are never
ruptured by penicillin (although penicillin does sometimes provoke serious
allergic reactions in certain susceptible patients).

Pharmaceutical chemists rejoiced at this world-transforming
discovery, and they began busily tinkering with beta-lactam products,
discovering or producing all kinds of patentable, marketable, beta-lactam
variants. Today there are more than fifty different penicillins and
seventy-five cephalosporins, all of which use beta-lactam rings in one
form or another.

The enthusiastic search for new medical miracles turned up
substances that attack bacteria through even more clever methods.
Antibiotics were discovered that could break-up or jam-up a cell’s protein
synthesis; drugs such as tetracycline, streptomycin, gentamicin, and
chloramphenicol. These drugs creep through the porins deep inside the
cytoplasm and lock onto the various vulnerable sites in the RNA protein
factories. This RNA sabotage brings the cell’s basic metabolism to a
seething halt, and the bacterium chokes and dies.

The final major method of antibiotic attack was an assault on
bacterial DNA. These compounds, such as the sulphonamides, the
quinolones, and the diaminopyrimidines, would gum up bacterial DNA
itself, or break its strands, or destroy the template mechanism that reads
from the DNA and helps to replicate it. Or, they could ruin the DNA’s
nucleotide raw materials before those nucleotides could be plugged into
the genetic code. Attacking bacterial DNA itself was the most
sophisticated attack yet on bacteria, but unfortunately these DNA
attackers often tended to be toxic to mammalian cells as well. So they
saw less use. Besides, they were expensive.

In the war between species, humanity had found a full and varied
arsenal. Antibiotics could break open cell walls, choke off the life-giving
flow of proteins, and even smash or poison bacterial DNA, the central
command and control center. Victory was swift, its permanence seemed
assured, and the command of human intellect over the realm of brainless
germs was taken for granted. The world of bacteria had become a
commercial empire for exploitation by the clever mammals.

Antibiotic production, marketing and consumption soared steadily.
Nowadays, about a hundred thousand tons of antibiotics are
manufactured globally every year. It’s a five billion dollar market.
Antibiotics are cheap, far cheaper than time-consuming, labor-intensive
hygienic cleanliness. In many countries, these miracle drugs are routinely
retailed in job-lots as over-the-counter megadosage nostrums.

Nor have humans been the only mammals to benefit. For decades,
antibiotics have been routinely fed to American livestock. Antibiotics
are routinely added to the chow in vast cattle feedlots, and antibiotics are
fed to pigs, even chickens. This practice goes on because a meat animal
on antibiotics will put on poundage faster, and stay healthier, and supply
the market with cheaper meat. Repeated protests at this practice by
American health authorities have been successfully evaded in courts and
in Congress by drug manufacturers and agro-business interests.

The runoff of tainted feedlot manure, containing millions of pounds
of diluted antibiotics, enters rivers and watersheds where the world’s
free bacteria dwell.

In cities, municipal sewage systems are giant petri-dishes of
diluted antibiotics and human-dwelling bacteria.

Bacteria are restless. They will try again, every twenty minutes.
And they never sleep.

Experts were aware in the 1940s and 1950s that bacteria could, and
would, mutate in response to selection pressure, just like other
organisms. And they knew that bacteria went through many generations
very rapidly, and that bacteria were very fecund. But it seemed that any
bacteria would be very lucky to mutate to successfully resist even one
antibiotic. Compounding that luck by evolving to resist two antibiotics at
once seemed well-nigh impossible. Bacteria were at our mercy. They
didn’t seem any more likely to resist penicillin and tetracycline than a
rainforest can resist bulldozers and chainsaws.

However, thanks to convenience and the profit motive, once-
miraculous antibiotics had become a daily commonplace. A general
chemical haze of antibiotic pollution spread across the planet. Titanic
numbers of bacteria, in all niches of bacterial life, were being given an
enormous number of chances to survive antibiotics.

Worse yet, bacteriologists were simply wrong about the way that
bacteria respond to a challenge.

Bacteria will try anything. Bacteria don’t draw hard and fast
intellectual distinctions between their own DNA, a partner’s DNA, DNA
from another species, virus DNA, plasmid DNA, and food.

This property of bacteria is very alien to the human experience. If
your lungs were damaged from smoking, and you asked your dog for a
spare lung, and your dog, in friendly fashion, coughed up a lung and gave
it to you, that would be quite an unlikely event. It would be even more
miraculous if you could swallow a dog’s lung and then breathe with it just
fine, while your dog calmly grew himself a new one. But in the world of
bacteria this kind of miracle is a commonplace.

Bacteria share enormous amounts of DNA. They not only share
DNA among members of their own species, through conjugation and
transduction, but they will encode DNA in plasmids and transposons and
packet-mail it to other species. They can even find loose DNA lying
around from the burst bodies of other bacteria, and they can eat that DNA
like food and then make it work like information. Pieces of stray DNA can
be swept all willy-nilly into the molecular syringes of viruses, and
injected randomly into other bacteria. This fetid orgy isn’t what Gregor
Mendel had in mind when he was discovering the roots of classical genetic
inheritance in peas, but bacteria aren’t peas, and don’t work like peas, and
never have. Bacteria do extremely strange and highly inventive things
with DNA, and if we don’t understand or sympathize, that’s not their
problem, it’s ours.

Some of the best and cleverest information-traders are some of the
worst and most noxious bacteria. Such as Staphylococcus (boils).
Haemophilus (ear infections). Neisseria (gonorrhea).
Pseudomonas (abcesses, surgical infections). Even Escherichia, a very
common human commensal bacterium.

When it comes to resisting antibiotics, bacteria are all in the effort
together. That’s because antibiotics make no distinctions in the world of
bacteria. They kill, or try to kill, every bacterium they touch.

If you swallow an antibiotic for an ear infection, the effects are not
confined to the tiny minority of toxic bacteria that happen to be inside
your ear. Every bacterium in your body is assaulted, all hundred trillion
of them. The toughest will not only survive, but they will carefully store,
and sometimes widely distribute, the genetic information that allowed
them to live.

The resistance from bacteria, like the attack of antibiotics, is a
multi-pronged and sophisticated effort. It begins outside the cell, where
certain bacteria have learned to spew defensive enzymes into the cloud of
slime that surrounds them — enzymes called beta-lactamases,
specifically adapted to destroy beta-lactam, and render penicillin useless.
At the cell-wall itself, bacteria have evolved walls that are tougher and
thicker, less likely to soak up drugs. Other bacteria have lost certain
vulnerable porins, or have changed the shape of their porins so that
antibiotics will be excluded instead of inhaled.

Inside the wall of the tank car, the resistance continues. Bacteria
make permanent stores of beta-lactamases in the outer goo of periplasm,
which will chew the drugs up and digest them before they ever reach the
vulnerable core of the cell. Other enzymes have evolved that will crack
or chemically smother other antibiotics.

In the pump-factories of the inner cell membrane, new pumps have
evolved that specifically latch on to antibiotics and spew them back out
of the cell before they can kill. Other bacteria have mutated their interior
protein factories so that the assembly-line no longer offers any sabotage-
sites for site-specific protein-busting antibiotics. Yet another strategy
is to build excess production capacity, so that instead of two or three
assembly lines for protein, a mutant cell will have ten or fifty, requiring
ten or fifty times as much drug for the same effect. Other bacteria have
come up with immunity proteins that will lock-on to antibiotics and make
them useless inert lumps.

Sometimes — rarely — a cell will come up with a useful mutation
entirely on its own. The theorists of forty years ago were right when they
thought that defensive mutations would be uncommon. But spontaneous
mutation is not the core of the resistance at all. Far more often, a
bacterium is simply let in on the secret through the exchange of genetic
data.

Beta-lactam is produced in nature by certain molds and fungi; it was
not invented from scratch by humans, but discovered in a petri dish. Beta-
lactam is old, and it would seem likely that beta-lactamases are also very
old.

Bacteriologists have studied only a few percent of the many
microbes in nature. Even those bacteria that have been studied are by no
means well understood. Antibiotic resistance genes may well be present
in any number of different species, waiting only for selection pressure to
manifest themselves and spread through the gene-pool.

If penicillin is sprayed across the biosphere, then mass death of
bacteria will result. But any bug that is resistant to penicillin will
swiftly multiply by millions of times, thriving enormously in the power-
vacuum caused by the slaughter. The genes that gave the lucky winner its
resistance will also increase by millions of times, becoming far more
generally available. And there’s worse: because often the resistance is
carried by plasmids, and one single bacterium can contain as many as a
thousand plasmids, and produce them and spread them at will.

That genetic knowledge, once spread, will likely stay around a while.
Bacteria don’t die of old age. Bacteria aren’t mortal in the sense that we
understand mortality. Unless they are killed, bacteria just keep splitting
and doubling. The same bacterial “individual” can spew copies of itself
every twenty minutes, basically forever. After billions of generations,
and trillions of variants, there are still likely to be a few random
old-timers around identical to ancestors from some much earlier epoch.
Furthermore, spores of bacteria can remain dormant for centuries, then
sprout in seconds and carry on as if nothing had happened. This gives the
bacterial gene-pool — better described as an entire gene-ocean — an
enormous depth and range. It’s as if Eohippus could suddenly show up at
the Kentucky Derby — and win.

It seems likely that many of the mechanisms of bacterial resistance
were borrowed or kidnapped from bacteria that themselves produce
antibiotics. The genus Streptomyces, which are filamentous, Gram-
positive bacteria, are ubiquitous in the soil; in fact the characteristic
“earthy” smell of fresh soil comes from Streptomyces’ metabolic products.
And Streptomyces bacteria produce a host of antibiotics, including
streptomycin, tetracycline, neomycin, chloramphenicol, and erythromycin.

Human beings have been using streptomycin’s antibiotic poisons
against tuberculosis, gonorrhea, rickettsia, chlamydia, and candida yeast
infection, with marked success. But in doing so, we have turned a small-
scale natural process into a massive industrial one.

Streptomyces already has the secret of surviving its own poisons.
So, presumably, do at least some of streptomyces’s neighbors. If the
poison is suddenly broadcast everywhere, through every niche in the
biosphere, then word of how to survive it will also get around.

And when the gospel of resistance gets around, it doesn’t come just
one chapter at a time. Scarily, it tends to come in entire libraries. A
resistance plasmid (familiarly known to researchers as “R-plasmids,”
because they’ve become so common) doesn’t have to specialize in just one
antibiotic. There’s plenty of room inside a ring of plasmid DNA for handy
info on a lot of different products and processes. Moving data on and off
the plasmid is not particularly difficult. Bacterial scissors-and-zippers
units known as “transposons” can knit plasmid DNA right into the central
cell DNA — or they can transpose new knowledge onto a plasmid. These
segments of loose DNA are aptly known as “cassettes.”

So when a bacterium is under assault by an antibiotic, and it
acquires a resistance plasmid from who-knows where, it can suddenly
find an entire arsenal of cassettes in its possession. Not just resistance
to the one antibiotic that provoked the response, but a whole Bible of
resistance to all the antibiotics lately seen in the local microworld.

Even more unsettling news has turned up in a lab report in the
Journal of Bacteriology from 1993. Tetracycline-resistant strains in the
bacterium Bacteroides have developed a kind of tetracycline reflex.
Whenever tetracycline appears in the neighborhood, a Bacteroides
transposon goes into overdrive, manufacturing R-plasmids at a frantic
rate and then passing them to other bacteria in an orgy of sexual
encounters a hundred times more frequent than normal. In other words,
tetracycline itself now directly causes the organized transfer of
resistance to tetracycline. As Canadian microbiologist Julian Davies
commented in Science magazine (15 April 1994), “The extent and
biochemical nature of this phenomenon is not well understood. A number
of different antibiotics have been shown to promote plasmid transfer
between different bacteria, and it might even be considered that some
antibiotics are bacterial pheromones.”

If this is the case, then our most potent chemical weapons have been
changed by our lethal enemies into sexual aphrodisiacs.

The greatest battlegrounds of antibiotic warfare today are
hospitals. The human race is no longer winning. Increasingly, to enter a
hospital can make people sick. This is known as “nosocomial infection,”
from the Latin for hospital. About five percent of patients who enter
hospitals nowadays pick up an infection from inside the hospital itself.

An epidemic of acquired immune deficiency has come at a
particularly bad time, since patients without natural immunity are forced
to rely heavily on megadosages of antibiotics. These patients come to
serve as reservoirs for various highly resistant infections. So do patients
whose immune systems have been artificially repressed for organ
transplantion. The patients are just one aspect of the problem, though;
healthy doctors and nurses show no symptoms, but they can carry strains
of hospital superbug from bed to bed on their hands, deep in the pores of
their skin, and in their nasal passages. Superbugs show up in food, fruit
juices, bedsheets, even in bottles and buckets of antiseptics.

The advent of antibiotics made elaborate surgical procedures safe
and cheap; but nowadays half of nosocomial infections are either surgical
infections, or urinary tract infections from contaminated catheters.
Bacteria are attacking us where we are weakest and most vulnerable, and
where their own populations are the toughest and most battle-hardened.
From hospitals, resistant superbugs travel to old-age homes and day-care
centers, predating on the old and the very young.

Staphylococcus aureus, a common hospital superbug which
causes boils and ear infections, is now present in super-strains highly
resistant to every known antibiotic except vancomycin. Enterococcus is
resistant to vancomycin, and it has been known to swap genes with
staphylococcus. If staphylococcus gets hold of this resistance
information, then staph could become the first bacterial superhero of the
post-antibiotic era, and human physicians of the twenty-first century
would be every bit as helpless before it as were physicians of the 19th. In
the 19th century physicians dealt with septic infection by cutting away
the diseased flesh and hoping for the best.

Staphylococcus often lurks harmlessly in the nose and throat.
Staphylococcus epidermis, a species which lives naturally on human
skin, rarely causes any harm, but it too must battle for its life when
confronted with antibiotics. This harmless species may serve as a
reservoir of DNA data for the bacterial resistance of other, truly lethal
bacteria. Certain species of staph cause boils, others impetigo. Staph
attacking a weakened immune system can kill, attacking the lungs
(pneumonia) and brain (meningitis). Staph is thought to cause toxic shock
syndrome in women, and toxic shock in post-surgical patients.

A 1994 outbreak of an especially virulent strain of the common
bacterium Streptococcus, “necrotizing fasciitis,” caused panic headlines
in Britain about “flesh-eating germs” and “killer bugs.” Of the fifteen
reported victims so far, thirteen have died.

A great deal has changed since the 1940s and 1950s. Strains of
bacteria can cross the planet with the speed of jet travel, and populations
of humans — each with their hundred trillion bacterial passengers —
mingle as never before. Old-fashioned public-health surveillance
programs, which used to closely study any outbreak of bacterial disease,
have been dismantled, or put in abeyance, or are underfunded. The
seeming triumph of antibiotics has made us careless about the restive
conquered population of bacteria.

Drug companies treat the standard antibiotics as cash cows, while
their best-funded research efforts currently go into antiviral and
antifungal compounds. Drug companies follow the logic of the market;
with hundreds of antibiotics already cheaply available, it makes little
commercial sense to spend millions developing yet another one. And the
market is not yet demanding entirely new antibiotics, because the
resistance has not quite broken out into full-scale biological warfare.
And drug research is expensive and risky. A hundred million dollars of
investment in antibiotics can be wiped out by a single point-mutation in a
resistant bacterium.

We did manage to kill off the smallpox virus, but none of humanity’s
ancient bacterial enemies are extinct. They are all still out there, and
they all still kill people. Drug companies mind their cash flow, health
agencies become complacent, people mind what they think is their own
business, but bacteria never give up. Bacteria have learned to chew up,
spit out, or shield themselves from any and every drug we can throw at
them. They can now defeat every technique we have. The only reason true
disaster hasn’t broken out is because all bacteria can’t all defeat all the
techniques all at once. Yet.

There have been no major conceptual breakthroughs lately in the
antibiotic field. There has been some encouraging technical news, with
new techniques such as rational drug design and computer-assisted
combinatorial chemistry. There may be entirely new miracle drugs just
over the horizon that will fling the enemy back once again, with enormous
losses. But on the other hand, there may well not be. We may already
have discovered all the best antibiotic tricks available, and squandered
them in a mere fifty years.

Anyway, now that the nature of their resistance is better
understood, no bacteriologist is betting that any new drug can foil our
ancient enemies for very long. Bacteria are better chemists than we are
and they don’t get distracted.

If the resistance triumphs, it does not mean the outbreak of
universally lethal plagues or the end of the human race. It is not an
apocalyptic problem. What it would really mean — probably — is a slow
return, over decades, to the pre-antibiotic bacterial status-quo. A return
to the bacterial status-quo of the nineteenth century.

For us, the children of the miracle, this would mean a truly shocking
decline in life expectancy. Infant mortality would become very high; it
would once again be common for parents to have five children and lose
three. It would mean a return to epidemic flags, quarantine camps,
tubercular sanatariums, and leprosariums.

Cities without good sanitation — mostly Third World cities —
would suffer from water-borne plagues such as cholera and dysentery.
Tuberculosis would lay waste the underclass around the world. If you cut
yourself at all badly, or ate spoiled food, there would be quite a good
chance that you would die. Childbirth would be a grave septic risk for the
mother.

The practice of medicine would be profoundly altered. Elaborate,
high-tech surgical procedures, such as transplants and prosthetic
implants, would become extremely risky. The expense of any kind of
surgery would soar, since preventing infection would be utterly necessary
but very tedious and difficult. A bad heart would be a bad heart for life,
and a shattered hip would be permanently disabling. Health-care budgets
would be consumed by antiseptic and hygienic programs.

Life without contagion and infection would seem as quaintly exotic
as free love in the age of AIDS. The decline in life expectancy would
become just another aspect of broadly diminishing cultural expectations
in society, economics, and the environment. Life in the developed world
would become rather pinched, wary, and nasty, while life in the
overcrowded human warrens of the megalopolitan Third World would
become an abattoir.

If this all seems gruesomely plausible, it’s because that’s the way
our ancestors used to live all the time. It’s not a dystopian fantasy; it
was the miracle of antibiotics that was truly fantastic. It that miracle
died away, it would merely mean an entirely natural return to the normal
balance of power between humanity and our invisible predators.

At the close of this century, antibiotic resistance is one of the
gravest threats that confronts the human race. It ranks in scope with
overpopulation, nuclear disaster, destruction of the ozone, global
warming, species extinction and massive habitat destruction. Although it
gains very little attention in comparison to those other horrors, there is
nothing theoretical or speculative about antibiotic resistance. The mere
fact that we can’t see it happening doesn’t mean that it’s not taking place.
It is occurring, stealthily and steadily, in a world which we polluted
drastically before we ever took the trouble to understand it.

We have spent billions to kill bacteria but mere millions to truly
comprehend them. In our arrogance, we have gravely underestimated our
enemy’s power and resourcefulness. Antibiotic resistance is a very real
threat which is well documented and increasing at considerable speed. In
its scope and its depth and the potential pain and horror of its
implications, it may the greatest single menace that we human beings
confront — besides, of course, the steady increase in our own numbers.
And if we don’t somehow resolve our grave problems with bacteria, then
bacteria may well resolve that population problem for us.

85 Comments
  1. mishari permalink*
    June 2, 2011 12:37 PM

    Read Sterling’s prescient 1995 essay and tremble…

  2. June 2, 2011 6:29 PM

    I think I recognize that as a plague-era mask (protective herbs went in the proboscis?) popular with Stanley Kubrick… Informative essay, Sir M! Thanks for posting

  3. mishari permalink*
    June 2, 2011 6:55 PM

    Plague mask it is. Sterling used to have an excellent monthly column in Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine, back in the early-to-mid 90s. That’s where I first read this essay, which was a bit of a wake-up call.

    Like the vast majority of people who’ve grown up in the anti-biotic age, I hadn’t given bacteria and bacterial illnesses much thought: this essay freaked me out a bit. It freaks me out even more now that I’ve had some first-hand experience of what it means.

    A pal of mine was knocked down by a car a few years ago. All seemed pretty straight-forward when I visited him in the hospital. It was a clean break and bed-rest, a cast and time would take care of it.

    Then, while in hospital, he got an MRSI (Multiple Resistant Staph Infection). It progressed so rapidly that the doctors had to take his leg off at the hip before the infection killed him. You can believe that gave me some food for thought…

  4. Edward Taylor permalink
    June 2, 2011 7:02 PM

    SA They were worn by the doctors treating the patients. Christ knows what those in the midst of a feverish delirium must have thought when one or two of those figures came into their bedroom ( or wherever it was that they were dying ).

    In the 80’s there used to be printed cards you could carry with organ donor cards that said ” In the event of an accident I do not want to be visited by Margaret Thatcher and used as a photo opportunity” Not sure whether they were ever updated to the Major?Blair?Brown/Cameron eras but they should be.

    • June 2, 2011 7:07 PM

      1. Time to have a look at “Eyes Wide Shut” again, ET (the lead character is a doctor, remember, and at least one of the orgy scenes features that type of mask)

      2. “Nor kissed by Di” too, probably

  5. Edward Taylor permalink
    June 2, 2011 7:34 PM

    One of the ballroom dancers in Eyes Wide Shut is a really good friend of mine. I’m afraid I couldn’t get beyond looking out for him in that film.

    He’s in the trailer for the film as well which we saw in the cinema and we caused a minor disruption by laughing so hard. In-jokes can be a marvellous thing.

    Is it any good? I must say I prefer early Kubrick.

  6. mishari permalink*
    June 2, 2011 7:47 PM

    I quite enjoyed it, Ed, despite the presence of Tom ‘Batshit Crazy’ Cruise. Of course, I liked the Schnitzler novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story) on which it was based.

    • June 2, 2011 7:56 PM

      ET, M: If only SK had lived to shepherd it all the way through post-pro! The best way to look at EWS, apparently, is through the symbolism buried in the dialog and set-design. Several passages in the film blatantly “mirror” one another while several blatantly “contradict” one another. SK was somewhat of a genius (comedic understatement) and spooky-good at presenting several narratives at once, per film (with the top layer being the “commercial” bit). Even something like the name “Victor Ziegler” (played with sinister faux bon homie by the terribly underrated-as-an-actor Sydney Pollack) means a lot (having to do with bricks… masonry… etc). Kubrick once said that knowing powerful people is extremely dangerous and I believe he knew whereof he spoke!

    • June 2, 2011 7:58 PM

      Oh, and, apparently, Cruise and Kidman were cast *because* of their BSC factor (or their cult ahem status)

    • June 2, 2011 7:59 PM

      A pity this guy’s politics are so deranged because he’s done a good job with EWS here: http://www.collativelearning.com/EYES%20WIDE%20SHUT%20analysis.html

  7. MeltonMowbray permalink
    June 2, 2011 10:57 PM

    Just booked my German holiday when I saw the news. I wonder if a lingering death is a chargeable extra?

  8. mishari permalink*
    June 2, 2011 11:09 PM

    Stick to beer, wursts and sauerkraut and you should survive. Having said that, they still haven’t established what the actual vector of infection is…perhaps you should follow my sterling example and just fast for the duration. Imagine the accolades: ‘Zis Herr Mowbray iss a most spiritual chentleman…ve must ask him to come again.’

  9. mishari permalink*
    June 2, 2011 11:31 PM

    Thanks for that link, Steven. Rob Agar’s political views may be on the rancid side but some of his film analyses is fascinating, even if I don’t necessarily agree with him (his take on High Plains Drifter, for example, strikes me as a bit hit-and-miss)…

    • June 3, 2011 12:08 AM

      I think he’s really only worth reading on Kubrick, M… and his politics *are* BNP-lite, sadly. I exchanged a few emails with him before I discovered the retrograde politics on a smellier corner of his site and I doubt he’d have “chatted” with me if he’d known I’m a Darkie.

      Also, he probably owes a debt to the film critic who spotted the subliminal genocide narrative in The Shining as far back as ’87: http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/0052.html

  10. MeltonMowbray permalink
    June 2, 2011 11:33 PM

    My experience of German food thus far hasn’t been encouraging, so I may just avoid it altogether. A few packs of Rich Tea biscuits and Wispas should see me through.

    • June 3, 2011 12:17 AM

      MM: The “Dürüm Döner” (Imbiss kebabs) are quite good (almost Mexican) but make sure the meat is chicken and do avoid the diced cukes and tomatoes for the foreseeable future.

      Hobnobs not bad over here, either, but they’ll cost you double or triple what you’re used to.

    • MeltonMowbray permalink
      June 3, 2011 12:29 AM

      Thanks, Mr A. I shall keep that in mind.

    • Edward Taylor permalink
      June 3, 2011 8:36 AM

      When touring extensively in Germany in the early 80’s we found the Greek restaurants to be a welcome respite from the relentless schnitzels with potatoes or rice that most German restaurants offered. Several of the team who had experience of restaurants in Greece said they compared favourably and in many cases were actually better.

      An update from Steven may well reveal that this isn’t the case anymore.

      We did find a restaurant that served freshwater fish like carp and bream. It was like being in the pages of Gunter Grass novel. The himmelunderde ( potatoes boiled with apples ) was extremely nice but not the thing to eat on a hot summer’s day.

      Mind you salad looks off the table for a while – I’m going back to eating beef. It’s safer

  11. Reine permalink
    June 2, 2011 11:43 PM

    Wasn’t there such a costume (the plague mask) in Death in Venice or maybe I am thinking of Don’t Look Now? Truly disturbing. I find masks a bit weird all round. I loved Mann’s novella, unsettling though it is. Must reread it.

    I had some Welsh visitors in at work yesterday (the lady is from home, married to a Welsh man, surname of Williams spookily); I gave them my version of the tour. They have a young boy, a sensitive little fella who has some kind of hero worship thing going on with Enda Kenny, his Irish Grandad having bigged him up, huged him up more like. Anyway he was very excited to see him speaking in the Chamber and when we were saying our goodbyes in the main hall, he shyly tugged his mother’s arm and said “look, there’s Enda Kenny again sitting on that couch” and gazed at him as if he were the second coming. So I suppressed all my natural instincts, asked him if he would like to meet the Taoiseach, marched over, excused my interruption and introduced them. To give him his dues, Kenny was most amiable (even did a passable imitation of a Welsh accent). Doubtless I breached all manner of unwritten protocols but Rhys Williams will always remember me fondly even if Enda Kenny will run a mile the next time he sees me approaching. I was responsible, the Captain of the Guard told me, for delaying the Hungarian Prime Minister’s introduction. “Fuck him” I said and the captain sputtered laughing all over his medals.

    • mishari permalink*
      June 2, 2011 11:57 PM

      Fine girl y’are…fuck ‘im, indeed.

    • MeltonMowbray permalink
      June 3, 2011 12:13 AM

      How prosaic you make my life seem.

      I thought you’d settled your differences with the Hungarian Prime Minister, old boy. Or was that the last one?

  12. Reine permalink
    June 3, 2011 12:30 AM

    Ah, it isn’t quite so thrilling as I make it sound. As the actress said to the bishop.

  13. hic8ubique permalink
    June 3, 2011 2:26 AM

    I thought that might be an updated pic from our friend ExitB ;)

    An excellent read, M.
    Bruce Sterling…
    Jolly fellow, the Scot, bolstering his immunity with gales of laughter…

    Here’s some good news since 1995:
    http://www.springerlink.com/content/a4202t1p35771687/

    I’ve used the DesBio nano-silver product, and it’s been impressive.
    You can drink it, inhale it aerosolised, and spray on surfaces.

    I recently heard that oil of oregano taken every 4-6 hours at onset of illness works well. Each dose must be taken with a litre of water. I haven’t tried it yet, but plan to get some.
    http://www.homeremediesweb.com/oil_of_oregano_health_benefits.php

    also, raw honey applied to ulcerating wounds has been found beneficial for healing when antibiotics fail.

    I’m inclined to have these things on hand, because it’s most efficacious to take aggressive measures at the first sign of infection, rather than wait til one’s floored flat and then crawl off to the doc.

    Another one I’ve heard about, but not yet tried is Thieves oil. http://www.secretofthieves.com/
    Topical :)

    • Reine permalink
      June 3, 2011 12:56 PM

      Hic, you are a true font of wisdom. If we ever plan to meet, I’ll need at least a year’s notice to detox and get myself up to peak condition. I have a locker stacked with Co-Q10, Rhodiola and all manner of other potions but I rarely remember to take them with any kind of regularity.

      Glorious day here today.

    • hic8ubique permalink
      June 3, 2011 5:33 PM

      Well, hmmm, I don’t mean to come across as authoritative by any means, and I’d not dissuade anyone seeking medical evaluation. It’s just apparent that help can be a long time coming in our current state of chaos. For me, it’s down to stress mitigation really. Dwelling in a perpetual state of anxiety, or flying into a panic when things go awry, crashes immune resistance. So, my preference is to feel equipped to be somewhat self-reliant. If I’m kidding myself, so be it; at least I’m not making myself into a 24 hr cortisol factory.
      Several years ago, I heard a scientist interviewed (name forgotten) who spoke about various regions of the globe and their respective vulnerabilities. His message was to know the weaknesses of the systems in ones locale and prepare accordingly. Simple really, but do we do it?

      In our case here, the water mains are ancient and prone to sudden loss of water pressure. A hurricane from the right direction could easily cut off supply. So I began stocking about a dozen 3 gallon spring water bottles which I circulate in use. While we’re on high ground, the point we’re on could be cut off from the main island.
      So, being prepared to stay put for a while rather than evacuate is a good idea. I just whittle away at small measures, tucking extra supplies away, because it makes me happier. Next I want to get a multi-fuel generator. Tornadoes in Massachusetts this week, of all things…

      And I hope we will indeed meet some day in all our glorious imperfections. x

    • June 7, 2011 12:15 PM

      Hic, I’d bet my best socks that you’re a fan of Paul Theroux’ The Mosquito Coast

  14. Reine permalink
    June 3, 2011 5:37 PM

    You don’t come across that way at all; I just feel poorly equipped by comparison. Your approach is utterly logical. If more of us adopted it here, we might not be forking out 60 quid per 5 minute consultation to the GP every throw. Of course, many of them would like us to remain ignorant.

    • hic8ubique permalink
      June 3, 2011 6:07 PM

      Some of what you’re feeling may be a difference between 40 and 50 yrs of age. I couldn’t coast now the way I used to do, and still do a physically demanding job. One can do very well in the genetic lottery, but for everyone at some point it gets to be a concerted effort to stay healthy. Just maintaining muscle mass and bone density is a worthwhile focus, and raising your core temp kills off pathogens= bonus.
      But, you know, I eat pie! I’m no ascetic. I just don’t eat a lot of it.

      Your seaweed potions and possets always sound excellent to me.

    • Reine permalink
      June 3, 2011 6:18 PM

      I feel like I’m in a constant state of decrepitude lately! It’s as if I crossed some kind of unsignalled milestone and everything went tits up (or down more accurately). None of it sinister but just a kind of dawning that, yeah, I might need to start thinking about bone density and muscle health etc. A night out takes two days to recover from now. So, everything you say strikes a note and I will take note. Jesus ain’t gonna help me (very amusing Steven but I won’t be sending those links to my mother).

    • June 3, 2011 6:40 PM

      (posted the Jesus one by accident, Reine, which will teach me to attempt self-censorship; second one quite mild, though, don’t you think… so … perhaps… ?)

    • Reine permalink
      June 3, 2011 6:47 PM

      Mild, certainly, if by mild you mean three chilis rather than seven Steven. I nearly typoed mild as Milf there, you are a bad influence.

    • June 3, 2011 7:07 PM

      (evil smirk of gratification)

  15. June 3, 2011 5:43 PM

  16. June 3, 2011 5:46 PM

    Ooops, I meant to post this one:

  17. June 6, 2011 2:43 PM

    The apocalypse always has its ups and downs,
    Its backwards and forwards-es, its ins and outs
    One week you laugh at it, next week it’s frowns
    But who’d have thought it would have been bean sprouts?

    THE fodder for Buddhists the vegan’s reliable crutch
    Mass-filler of sandwiches, an unmemorable munch
    Totally tasteless but that doesn’t bother us much
    Who’d have thought it would be THE killer of the bunch?

    Make way bubonic plague, famine and nuclear attack
    Once guaranteed number one. mass grave filler
    For too long they’ve unfairly taken the flack
    Bean sprouts are this year’s number one killer

  18. June 6, 2011 2:45 PM

    Dear Ed. can you change 4th line to

    “But who’d have thought it would have been bean sprouts?”

    Thanks Ed.

    • MeltonMowbray permalink
      June 6, 2011 4:09 PM

      I have no problem dealing
      with those dying vegan scenes
      I have no fellow feeling
      for the killers of infant beans.

  19. June 6, 2011 4:18 PM

    There’s a thought upon which I’ve been mulling
    Do macrobiotics need a culling?
    But to my thoughts I say ” Now just hold on
    There are few diets a diabetic can look down upon”.

  20. MeltonMowbray permalink
    June 6, 2011 5:18 PM

    Macrobiotic? Now there’s a diet
    that I would gladly toss away
    not only does it make your stomach riot
    it’s absurdly hard to say.

  21. mishari permalink*
    June 6, 2011 5:23 PM

    The Wolf Diet Plan

    I like the odd root,
    the occasional beet;
    but I’d give them the boot
    for a bit of red meat.

  22. Edward Taylor permalink
    June 6, 2011 7:02 PM

    Bean sprouts have been found innocent

    Strange behaviour from the German authorities – who will they speculatively blame next?

    • hic8ubique permalink
      June 7, 2011 12:08 AM

      An innocent vegetable, most likely. Certainly not antibiotic abuse by agribusiness.
      Here’s some speculation sure to please St. Augustine:

      http://www.naturalnews.com/032622_ecoli_bioengineering.html

    • June 7, 2011 11:22 AM

      Always the chance that it’s Eco (as in “economic”) Warfare, Hic… this is the second major food scare, over here, since the beginning of the year (we now only eat the very expensive, dioxin-free “bio” chicken as a result of the first one). The thing is, you almost never find out (or, if you do, the going waiting period seems to be about 30 years, which is how long it usually takes the relevant psychopaths to die off: when the NYT admits a “conspiracy theory” was true, after all, you can be sure that someone involved has finally croaked; it’s pretty obvious that someone key to the JFK thing is still very much with us) . I maintain my wide-range of suspicions and wash everything with a saline solution.

  23. June 7, 2011 11:49 AM

    SA Odd behaviour from the German authorities in specifically blaming people and vegetables without doing the necessary tests first.

    It can’t help dampen down public fears and appears to strengthen the impression that the government is incompetent in this matter.

    Surely the exact opposite of the sort of image a government would want to present to its voters?

    I think the Spanish are planning to sue over the cucumbers so there goes some more tax revenue on an avoidable situation for the German Joe Public.

    • June 7, 2011 12:07 PM

      “SA Odd behaviour from the German authorities….”

      Well, at least *that* part is comprehensible, ET. The overall situation bears all the earmarks of covert operatives working for KFC.

  24. June 7, 2011 12:15 PM

    If only deep-fried chicken knuckles were covert SA.

  25. June 7, 2011 12:26 PM

    It’s called mushy peas in Lancashire SA

    Many years ago we were doing a very late night get-in on a big field. Someone went to get food for the crew and came back with fish and chips and poyts of mushy peas of an almost phosphorescent emerald green colour, beautiful biut not the colour you want to see in food.

    At 11.30 at night after a long heavy evening of work my standards can slip as regards what I eat but these pots of Windscale peas were impossible to touch.

    • June 7, 2011 1:46 PM

      Mushy peas are peaple

    • June 7, 2011 1:51 PM

      Very good!

      As our blog-host would say have a biscuit. But make sure that the biscuit doesn’t have pig-fat, corn syrup or mechanically recovered oats in it.

  26. mishari permalink*
    June 7, 2011 12:53 PM

    I found the whole thing a bit bizarre. One thinks of the Germans as being intensely methodical and coolly logical and yet they jumped on the unwarranted ‘Spanish cukes’ hypothesis with what looked like unseemly alacrity.

    I would have thought that, given the rather localised outbreak of the infections, Occam’s handy razor would have suggested a local vector of infection.

    Mind you, as per the Sterling piece I posted, this is just the beginning of the Great Bacterial War of the 21st century.

    Best bet is to move somewhere that has a lot of sunshine and lots of salinity (both powerful anti-biotics) like…oh, I don’t know…the coast of southern Spain, say; y’know, where they grow all those cukes…

    • June 7, 2011 1:45 PM

      “One thinks of the Germans as being intensely methodical and coolly logical…”

      That’s certainly the projected-image, M, but years of close interaction with the culture indicates, to me, that logic is often subverted here by A) habit-of-thought (ie, in this case: “Those Spaniards are not quite a *clean* people, therefore…”) and B) mystical thinking (eg: “Germans are a *clean* people, therefore, why would Odin…” etc.)

    • hic8ubique permalink
      June 7, 2011 2:12 PM

      As an oceanid being, I’ll always opt coastal
      dispelling all madness and crime.
      Landlocked and urban could make me go postal;
      I’d … ship myself to a saltwater clime.

      I think of Germans as being neurotic repressed perfectionists who always need to be correct. And then I notice how New Englanders crack down on dogs, children, alcohol, nudity…

  27. mishari permalink*
    June 7, 2011 2:09 PM

    True, Steven, true…those dirty ‘dark’ people, eh? I remember being baffled/amused by the Germans I met in the early 70s in India, Afghanistan and Nepal. Always moaning about how ‘unsanitary’ and ‘unhygienic’ everything was…which, to be fair, it was, but who expected anything else? Not me.

    Of course, the dopey fuckers did exactly the wrong thing, i. e. they attempted to eat and drink nothing that wasn’t ‘clean’. Consequently, they spent most of their time in the shit-house and the rest of it looking pallid and strained, recovering from their most recent bout in…the shit-house.

    Whereas I, who ate and drank whatever was put in front of me, quickly built up resistance and suffered no such problems.

    They should have gone to Sylt: nice and clean there.

    • June 7, 2011 7:24 PM

      “Always moaning about how ‘unsanitary’ and ‘unhygienic’ everything was…”

      Reminiscent of Young Augustine upon first experiencing Berlin! Oh my, you should’ve heard what the Persians (a fastidious professional presence in the city, which I connected myself to, for five years, via a doomed romance) had to say about “The Potatoes”…

  28. mishari permalink*
    June 7, 2011 2:17 PM

    …not just ‘New’ Englanders, hic; the wowsers over here in ‘Old’ England are much the same, hypocritical bastards that they are…

  29. June 7, 2011 2:24 PM

    When the pig went to El Ejido ( near Almeria ) a few years back the industrial agribiz approach to growing veg for mass consumption that gobbles up land all round there made a big impression on the team who accompanied it. Very far removed from being organic farming by all accounts.

    However the Spanish economy may soon be going down the pan as well so I’d imagine if they sue it will be for a lot of money. Serve the Germans right as well.

  30. mishari permalink*
    June 7, 2011 2:30 PM

    Oh, it’s a rotten business, Ed. The ‘farmers’ who run those plastic tunnel farms are mostly corporate shills and the workforce consists of illegal immigrants whom they can exploit and expose to toxic chemicals without fear of repercussions.

    The salad vegetables that people buy in Waitrose, Sainsburys and Tesco are the end-product of untold misery and corruption.

  31. MeltonMowbray permalink
    June 7, 2011 3:05 PM

    I hate dogs, children and nudity: fond of alcohol. 75% English, then.

    • hic8ubique permalink
      June 7, 2011 3:38 PM

      No, you get 100%, MM. It’s important to be fond of alcohol, just be sure to get bent out of shape if children see you having a glass of wine, and call the police if your neighbour serves his 17 yr old a beer. As Mishari notes, hypocrisy is key.
      Oh speaking of spirits… We dined with friends (Serbian and Belgian) who served a very fine Slivovitz or ‘Slivo’ after the meal. It was lovely, but potent like cognac. Made from plums. I’d never heard of it before.

    • MeltonMowbray permalink
      June 7, 2011 3:51 PM

      Hypocrisy is an essential part of the English character, and I can report that I have a very good helping of it.

      Actually, I would say that the defining features of the modern English person (if such a thing exists) are a fervent love of dogs, the more savage the better, a passionate attachment to children (just your own, of course) and an unquenchable thirst for alcohol.

      I’ve noticed slivovitz in various novels but never tasted (or seen) it. Doubtless others here have sampled it.

      Two bloody hours I’ve waited for this computer technician to arrive. I shall dole out some characteristic English violence when he comes to the door.

    • hic8ubique permalink
      June 7, 2011 4:47 PM

      I understand there are better and worse varieties, so let me find out what this was before you invest in a bottle; I wouldn’t want saddling you with rotgut Tesco slivo on my conscience.

  32. Edward Taylor permalink
    June 7, 2011 4:58 PM

    Slivovitz is very nice. One of those drinks that was brought back by people who’d been on holiday in what used to be Yugoslavia.

    But unlike the banana liqueur from the Canary Isles which had one small glass poured from it and then was left to turn into sugar on the drinks shelf, the slivovitz was very quickly drunk.

    The banana liqueur wasn’t helped by the fact that it looked like a urine sample from someone who hadn’t drunk anything for a month and who had spent the last two weeks sweating profusely in the Namib desert ( my favourite desert if you remember ).

  33. mishari permalink*
    June 7, 2011 6:27 PM

    I think (I won’t swear to it) that slivowitz is a generic term, like ‘home brew’ or ‘moonshine’; I drank a fair bit of the stuff in eastern Europe and it was all much of a muchness, whatever fruit they said it was made from..

    My neighbours in the Sierra de Gatta make what they call oruja from plums or apricots or cherries. My French great-aunt-in-law makes the same sort of thing from white (actually green) plums and calls it mirabelle, in Italy, they make it from whatever’s to hand–grape leavings, fruit, Coco Pops, Berlusconi’s scrotum–and call it grappa

    …there’s no bad alcohol, only bad alcoholics [are you sure about that last bit? —Ed.]

    • Edward Taylor permalink
      June 7, 2011 7:49 PM

      You’ve clearly never drunk scrumpy from Somerset.

      {{ shudders at the memories }}

  34. mishari permalink*
    June 7, 2011 6:29 PM

    If you don’t mind my asking, MM…what’s the computer problem?

  35. Reine permalink
    June 7, 2011 7:12 PM

    I am partial to a shot of freezing cold limoncello myself; drank some delicious ice wine in Canada and a good Port is always welcome. Never had slivo. Now, Silvio…

    Poitín, I never saw the point of other than to get absolutely off yer face drunk, which was the point I suppose especially when nothing else was to hand. Nothing else was to hand on one memorable Connemara occasion. I say memorable but I don’t really remember much.

  36. mishari permalink*
    June 7, 2011 7:41 PM

    Reine, you’d like a song by Ray Davies called ‘Demon Alcohol’ (off The Kinks album ‘Muswell Hillbillies’, if I remember correctly) that went:

    Oh, demon alcohol;
    sad memories I can’t recall…

  37. mishari permalink*
    June 7, 2011 8:40 PM

    I have a theory about the bacterial plague that bids fair to ravage Germany (AKA The Armageddon Protocol, as I’ve modestly dubbed it; exciting novel and film, starring…whatsisname…you know…with the muscles…to follow).

    I believe it’s the giant inflatable EuroPig of Edward Taylor….or should I call you Blofeld?

    Yes, Ed and his Pig of Death are laying waste to Europe. The bacteria is spread by filthy animals. The TaylorPig is a filthy animal. The prevailing winds blow from Manchester towards Hamburg? Check. Taylor was recently in Prague? Czech. Taylor is an aficionado of the old TV series Branded starring Chuck Connors? Chuck. Taylor frequently wears women’s clothing, like his idol Grayson Perry? Chick. Taylor is full of bacteria-friendly agar? Chock.

    I rest my case.

    • hic8ubique permalink
      June 7, 2011 10:54 PM

      Brilliantly argued,
      poetic even.

      I’m a bit disoriented…

  38. Edward Taylor permalink
    June 7, 2011 8:49 PM

    You obviously have drunk scrumpy from Somerset. My apologies for suggesting above that you hadn’t.

  39. mishari permalink*
    June 7, 2011 8:56 PM

    whashay? wharrer…wharrer…you my besh fren…I loveyou, mate…fink I’m gonna be sick…blerghhrrrghhhrhr…

    • Reine permalink
      June 7, 2011 10:14 PM

      Oh, I just noticed the new set-up. Far out.

  40. mishari permalink*
    June 7, 2011 10:24 PM

    Not far out enough for me: the moon would be good. I detest FB and Twitter and don’t want their poxy logos on this blog but wordpress, in an infuriatingly high-handed fashion, didn’t tell me they were going to do it or give me the option of not having it, the treacherous fucks. I’m livid.

    • Reine permalink
      June 7, 2011 10:35 PM

      Ah, I thought it was at your behest. What is the point of this ubiquity?

  41. mishari permalink*
    June 7, 2011 10:39 PM

    Damned if I know, but I hate it. The very sight of those stupid ubiquitous logos makes the steam bubble in my gauges…must have a drink…

  42. Reine permalink
    June 7, 2011 10:58 PM

    I am sorry you are piqued by this unwelcome intrusion. I am drinking some chamomile tea, but you may need something stiffer.

    Get out of Mishari’s bed you interlopers!

  43. hic8ubique permalink
    June 7, 2011 10:59 PM

    I still have a facebook presence, but I’ve not done anything with it in a year or so.Too much garbagey onslaught.
    My disenchantment was complete when I began to receive offers of discounts on condition I ‘liked’ a certain retailer on facebook. That was too creepy.

  44. mishari permalink*
    June 7, 2011 11:16 PM

    That’s it, hic…the whole Facebook apparatus is creepily intrusive. They’re in the business of data-harvesting and then selling that data on. I want nothing to do with it.

    I’m having camomile tea with honey and brandy, health nut that I am…you know what’s nice (more for waking up than relaxing)? Lemon and ginger tea. I’ve been drinking a lot of that lately.

    • Reine permalink
      June 7, 2011 11:42 PM

      May as well hedge your bets. You are right, lemon and ginger is more early day … in the evening I like Earl Grey and chamomile at night… in between several hundred cups of coffee, red wine and the occasional vodka tonic. Ah la.

      We are early to bed in this house tonight. Big exams starting tomorrow. All on tenterhooks with the agitato. His Facebook page was hopping tonight and the phone alive with messages from well wishers from singing babies to older people offering rosaries, candles and my father bringing up the rear with a speech about what a fine young man he was and how proud he makes everyone and promising a car regardless of the outcome, with the caveat that he might have to win the lottery first etc. People are kind. Poor fella, he asked me for some words he might slip into his essay on English paper one. I offered verisimilitude (nah); mellifluous (too girly); axiomatic (whateva); peripatetic (too fussy, the examiner probably won’t know what it means); somnolent and paraphernalia were briefly considered; minge got a laugh but was ruled out completely as was smegma. I did my best.

    • hic8ubique permalink
      June 7, 2011 11:50 PM

      Best of luck to the scholar, Re!
      (Smegma is a horrid word. I think of it as the name of some poor unwitting Icelandic girl.)

      Lemon ginger is always in supply here.
      I’ve got a new one to try from Tazo:

      ‘Tazo Rest’
      ~herbal infusion~
      ‘a lulling blend of rose petals,
      valerian root, and citrusy herbs’

      the actual ingredients:

      lemon balm
      rose petals
      honeybush
      orange peel
      lemon myrtle
      lemon verbena
      licorice root
      lavender
      valerian root
      natural flavours (?)
      ginger
      orange essence oil
      and chinese geranium oil

      It’s the valerian that’s the real kicker, relatively speaking.

    • Reine permalink
      June 7, 2011 11:54 PM

      Thanks Hic. That tea sounds good. I like Rooibos too, good taste, good colour. ‘night all, my lids are drooping.

    • Reine permalink
      June 7, 2011 11:57 PM

      P.S. Our first exchange, two years or so ago now, Hic, was about favourite words on one of the Guardian blogs.. saxifrage and rhododenron were among mine – I must look it up. Glad to be still talking, by the grace of Mishari. x

    • hic8ubique permalink
      June 8, 2011 12:13 AM

      Are we having an anniversary, Re? That seems about right.
      As I recall, I cited ‘syzygy’ as a favourite, and ‘armagnac’, to which I’ve just had friendly recourse.
      That was an amazing thread. I must go back and see who was there who I didn’t ‘know’ back then.

      Rooibos and honeybush are the same thing, as far as I can tell.

      ‘By the grace of Mishari’ indeed;
      I’ll raise him a heart-felt toast.
      ( sauvignon blanc/ semillon/ muscadelle)

      May we enjoy many more delicious words, dear Reine.
      Somnolent seems to be the word of the hour on your side. x

  45. hic8ubique permalink
    June 7, 2011 11:34 PM

    I still get emails notifying me of concert/event notices on facebook.
    That seems a worthwhile function, but I still won’t go for it.

    For a surprisingly palatable comfort/immune support drink:
    half a lemon
    a crushed clove of garlic
    dollop of raw honey
    hot water

    in the winter, I do add a generous splash of armagnac for good measure.

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