A couple of weeks ago, Science Bytes hosted a very exciting presentation by UCSF researcher Richard Sullivan, PhD. He promised to talk about why vaccines aren’t bad, why eating dirt is good, and how our immune system directs us to choose the perfect mate!
Beer in hand, Rick first introduced us to how our immune system works. Turns out that a healthy immune system is perhaps our most precious possession: it’s always on the lookout for us, constantly monitoring, searching out and destroying invaders.
Initially, when a pathogen (usually a virus or bacterium) enters our body, it may take a few days for the pathogen and an immune cell to meet up. So we get sick for a week or so.
But once an immune cell recognizes an invader and devours it, it races back to home base (the lymph node). It shows what it’s got, and it calls on its buddies to come back and help. They begin reproducing at phenomenal rates and come back out in huge numbers to, as Rick so eloquently puts it, “kick ass.” This epic battle between many millions of cells takes just about all the energy you have, so your immune system puts you to bed—which also works to protect others from your germs.
So, thus armed with a little knowledge, we were able to follow Rick through his points of discussion.
First up: why aren’t vaccines bad? Vaccines are often a point of hot debate, but Rick spoke simply from an immunologist’s standpoint. Each year we’re encouraged to get the flu vaccine. Knowing that the vaccine will target only one specific strain of influenza—the one they predict will come our way that year—we wonder: how accurate are these predictions? Turns out, pretty good! Nine years out of ten, the prediction is accurate and the vaccine works.
But, really, why should people bother to get vaccinated? Well, besides selfish interests (keeping us from being miserable for a week or two), Rick explained that it also provides a service to the community. When large enough numbers of people are vaccinated, it helps protect those who are not immune and those who are at greater risk, thus providing “herd immunity.” Don’t know quite how to feel about being thought of as part of a herd, but there you go.
So, onto the next subject: why is eating dirt good? Basically, Rick said, the immune system is like a group of bored frat boys sitting on the porch drinking beer. If you don’t give them something to do, they’re going to go FIND something to do, and it may not be constructive.
So it is with our immune system. If we don’t give it meaningful challenges, it may eventually turn on us in the form of autoimmune diseases. These may range from asthma or allergies to diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, or cancer.
However, with the rise in popularity of hand sanitizers and antimicrobial soaps and lotions, our immune systems may become bored. Too many of the bad guys are killed and there’s nothing to do. On the other hand, improper use of antimicrobial products may kill just the weakest pathogens and leave the stronger ones alive, creating superbugs that may overwhelm our systems.
So, a little dirt can be a good thing, and washing with regular soap and water just a few times a day is the very best way to keep our immune systems happy.
Lastly, we may think we’re in complete control when choosing a mate, but Rick begs to differ. “You know that moment when you look into the other person’s eyes and think, I want to spend the rest of my life with this person?” Rick said, “That’s your immune system talking.”
Studies of long-term successful couples have shown that they almost always have opposite immune systems. They have differing weaknesses and strengths. This serves a purpose when raising children: what might kill one parent probably won’t kill the other, so someone will be left to raise the child. To go along with this, it also appears that having opposite immune systems is very likely to make us feel like we’re in love.
So next time when considering a long-term relationship, if you find yourself being repelled by one person while getting seriously starry-eyed for someone else, you may have your trusty immune system to thank.
To those who missed this thoroughly enjoyable Science Bytes talk, never fear. While we are skipping December, Science Bytes talks will resume in January. Stay tuned for updates!