Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I'm thankful for gut flora

On Thanksgiving, we take time away from complaining about our jobs, the government and the price of higher education to be grateful for the good things we have: our jobs, Facebook, Twitter, reality TV shows (sure), family, health, and the greatest gift which opens up a relationship with the creator of the universe. There are some other things this Creator has given that don’t normally make the list of those for which we are thankful.

Intestinal bacteria
The trillions of bacteria that live in the average human intestinal tract outnumber the cells in the body. However, most are beneficial and deter harmful bacteria from growing and damaging the host. These “good” bacteria boost our immune system, improve nutrient absorption [1], assist in the digestion of food, break down toxins, as well as manufacture vitamins and amino acids [2]. This is why a course of probiotics is recommended before travel to third world nations and one reason yogurt sells at the Piggly Wiggly. It may not make for a very good discussion topic around the Thanksgiving table, but gut flora are good for us.

While tragic when these affect populated areas and people are harmed, earthquakes – a result of plate tectonics – have served to provide a livable planet for advanced life. Plate tectonics maintain proper amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to balance the sun’s luminosity. In the carbonate-silicate cycle, CO2 is removed from the atmosphere through weathering, then returned into the earth’s crust through plate tectonics. Another similar mechanism controls the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere through a type of “oxygen elevator”. Oxygen becomes bound in various oxides, drawn into the earth’s interior at subduction zones along tectonic plates, then incorporated through a complex process into a mineral called majorite (yes, it was named for researcher Alan Major). When majorite reaches the earth's surface, it releases the oxygen, some into the atmosphere and some to bind with hydrogen to form water [3]. Without tectonic activity – and earthquakes – that perform these and many other functions, this planet would not be habitable. We can thank God for earthquakes.

Bad is good
Other examples of things we normally don’t think are worthy of thanks include volcanoes which deposit nutrient rich soil that is easily broken down by weathering, allowing for productive agriculture. And viruses, which are often very deleterious to humans, are beneficial in regulating animal and plant populations. Also, researchers have been able to use harmful viruses for good, like sheep in wolves’ clothing. For example, the deadly HIV-1 virus was “disabled” and used to deliver a healthy gene to stem cells of a patient with a rare brain disorder [4]. This Thanksgiving we can see the Creator’s providence even in some unusual places.

"Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all His benefits." (Psalm 103:2)

[1] USDA/Agricultural Research Service. "Beneficial Bacteria Boost Intestinal Health."ScienceDaily 3 January 2007. 24 November 2010
[2] European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). "Bacterial balance keeps us healthy: Microbial genes in gut outnumber genes in human body." ScienceDaily 4 March 2010. 24 November 2010 .
[3] David Rogstad, “Another benefit for life in earthquakes”, Reasons to Believe, 7 Dec 2007.
[4] Fazale Rana, “Viruses and God’s providence revisited”, Reasons to Believer, 26 Nov 2009.