Bacteria seeking Asylum...

It's funny how the microscopic world of bacteria and viruses are so similar to the macroscopic world of human migrants...
21 April 2004


When I watch all the horrifying reports of war and on the news and hear of the plights of asylum seekers, I wonder how the people involved must feel. Why do they do this? Why would people give up their lives for a cause and risk everything only on the hope of a better existence? And why do we fight back so violently to protect our own interests?

Of course, being more scientific than political, I soon turn this line of ethical questioning to our biology. An analogous question arises in my mind: Why do germs risk so much trying to live in our bodies? I have actually started feeling bad for germs when I realize how similar their situation must be to those of refugees. If they have any feelings, they must be very frustrated and distraught. I can almost hear them begging for understanding and sympathy. If they did, I imagine it would sound something like this.

I am here today to plead a case for myself, my people, and other nations like us who are insulted by you, the human race. I am here to ask you to live in peace with us and, if not, to explain why we must declare war on you.

To start, let me introduce myself. I am a germ. It is not important exactly who I am or what strain I hail from because I speak for all germs who try to live amongst you. I am a simple germ and, as such, I have simple needs. Like you humans, my basic desire in life is to have enough food, water, and shelter to survive and to provide for my children. I say these are simple desires, but I also believe they are noble aspirations. I value my life and the life of my brethren as much as your people do and we will fight for our right to life. Our nations are not so different, are they?

Nonetheless, we are reviled for being so similar. You humans do not want to share your excess with us. As soon as we enter your bodies through cuts in your skin, or in the air you breathe and the food you eat -even through your saliva- we are attacked by the army you call 'The Immune System'. The 'Innate Arm' of your military, which recognises us as foreigners, immediately confronts us. We are covered by sugar molecules that are shaped differently from yours, identifying us as aliens. And so, just because we are ourselves, just because we look different, you attack us with molecules such as the 'complements' that punch holes though our bodies. Blatant racism! And not very complimentary either, I might add!

Some of us are crafty enough to slip through the borders of your skin and mucosal linings and continue looking for fertile human lands to settle. But your army will not give us a chance and eagerly sacrifices its own cells to destroy us. The 'Acquired' branch of your Immune System has vicious and suicidal sentinels called lymphocytes that patrol the waterways of your blood and lymph. They are even better at recognising us than the innate arm and are swift in their punishments. They quickly surround us in a process called opsonization, clumped together so we cannot escape, and destroyed by all sorts of nasty chemicals. Pieces of protein from our poor martyrs' bodies are brought to special training camps called 'germinal centres' where lymphocytes learn how to recognise and capture us more effectively. It's absolutely barbaric! No wonder many of my compatriots such as the viruses try to hide by living within your cells. Oh, but your immune system has a wonderful intelligence system and can figure out which cells are infected by us germs. Rather than allow these brave pioneers to live and share in your plenty, the killer T lymphocytes (what an intimidating name!) will confront the cells harbouring germs and force them to commit suicide so that the germs within are starved of their lives too.

This is only, as you well know, a very simplified summary of some of the tactics you use to deprive my people of our life, livelihood, and liberty. Is it no wonder then that we fight back? That we spill toxins into your body? That we make you feel ill? Or even that we must kill some of your cells to save ourselves? There are so many of us that you live with peacefully and gain from... the traitorous E. coli that lives in your gut and helps you digest vegetables and fruit...the yeast that makes your beer...can't you try to live more peacefully with your allies' cousins? If you continue to deny us our rights, I promise you that we will wage a war that is as vicious and as ruthless as your own...


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