“There are seven and a half billion people on Earth right now, give or take a few, and one and a half billion of us are infected with worms, contracted from soil. That’s one in five of everyone.”
Are our lives too clean? Exploring the life that lives in the ground, and two sides of a dirty coin: soil’s role in the biggest pandemic you’ve never heard of, and soil as a source of miraculous medicines.
Presented by Dan Crane
Written by Ian Steadman
Sound design by Laura Irving
Made with the support of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
- Laura Pritchett, author and environmental reporter
- Diana Wall, founding director, School of Global Environmental Sustainability at Colorado State University
- Naomi Clarke, researcher in global health at the Australian National University, Canberra
- Noah Fierer, microbial ecologist & head of The Fierer Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder
- Kim Lewis, molecular microbiologist at Northeastern University
Music & audio credits
- Theme tune // Dan Crane
- “Unlogical Bossa” (remix) // Martijn de Boer (NiGiD)
- “Liquid Decimation” (from Liquid Decimation) // DASK
- “Respiratory Waves” (from Airways) // Artem Bemba
- Various audio samples from freesfx.co.uk
- Clips from KRON 4 News and CBS used under fair use
Some additional information and resources not directly linked to within the transcript (below):
- Laura Pritchett’s “An Ode to Germs, Guts, and Gardens,” originally published by High Country News.
- More info on Dirt, a Terra Nova Expedition, at the Bas Bleu Theater in Fort Collins, Colorado.
- Don’t miss our explainer on NTDs, either:
- Here’s some more on Noah Fierer and team’s survey of soil in Central Park, with a headline that is very New York Times-y: “Beneath Central Park, a Teeming Universe.”
- Raffi Khatchadourian’s New Yorker profile of Slava Epstein and Kim Lewis, including their journey to the US across the Iron Curtain, is first class.
- We don’t name it in the show, but the new antibiotic that Lewis and his team found is called Teixobactin, if you’d like to read more.
- Popular Science breaks down the iChip, the clever new petri dish that Lewis and Epstein invented to cultivate uncultivatable bacteria.
- And, finally—how to “do the nematode dance”:
DAN CRANE: Say, have you ever seen a worm dance?
LAURA PRITCHETT: Actually, after thinking about it, I thought “dancing nematodes?!” And we could have bacteria, and creatures from myths around the world represented, and then it developed into a play.
DAN CRANE: This is Laura Pritchett. She’s a fiction writer, with a side gig in environmental reporting and a love of gardening.
LAURA PRITCHETT: I am a farmer’s daughter. I grew up on a ranch in Colorado.
DAN CRANE: Where I’m from, incidentally.
LAURA PRITCHETT: I was always in the dirt. I was playing in dirt, gardening.
DAN CRANE: When Laura moved into a new home, at the base of the Rockies, it had a terrible garden — the soil was all sand and clay. And then, thanks to a course of antibiotics she took after some dental surgery, she killed off her gut bacteria. We know that the bacteria inside our bodies, on average, outnumber our own cells, and that killing the ones in our guts with antibiotics can have wild, unpredictable knock-on effects. It’s one of those areas of science where we’ve still only mapped out the edges of the unknown.
LAURA PRITCHETT: So I went to garden to feel better. And a conversation about that turned into a conversation about, wouldn’t it be great to write a play about dirt? Which just sent me giggling because I can think of no worse thing to try to write a play about.
DAN CRANE: Welcome back to The Thin Layer, the podcast about dirt. So far in this series we’ve talked about how the difference between soil and dirt is that soil is alive, and how that life makes soil such an important, underappreciated resource. Without that life, we couldn’t grow as much food in soil. Laura’s longtime quest to build up healthy soil in her garden became intertwined with needing to rebuild her gut microbiome.
LAURA PRITCHETT: But I wanted to bring what we can’t see, and it’s so big we can’t see it, I wanted to bring it to life on the stage so that we could see it in a new way.
DAN CRANE: So she went to ask Dr Wall about it.
DIANA WALL: They invited me to come have wine and tell them about nematodes.
DAN CRANE: This is Diana Wall, founding director of the University of Colorado’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability. You might remember her from the first episode of our show, where we talked to her about her work on the edge of the world, in the desert valleys of Antarctica. When she’s down there, among other research, she studies a specific kind of worm: the nematode. They’re so small, most of them can’t be seen with the naked eye.
DIANA WALL: I was really excited about it, because I had had wine and I was sitting in there and I was going nematodes dance, you know, and I was doing the nematode dance, because we use those to keep warm, you know, we just do this kind of thing.
DAN CRANE: Now, you can’t see what she’s doing so I’ll just try to describe “this kind of thing”: Stand up straight, legs together, arms down by your sides, and then wiggle from side to side while bobbing up and down. I hope you’re on the subway, or the tube, or riding on a train somewhere. Now, you know those inflatable, dancing balloon things, that car dealers use? Well, imagine one of those, but without the arms, and you’re pretty much there.
Now, that’s basically what a nematode is, by the way — it’s a tube. Roundworm tubes, to be precise, and roundworms are simple creatures, food in one end, waste out the other. But nematodes are kind of special, despite their simplicity. Eighty percent of all individual animals on Earth are nematodes.
Nematodes are absolutely everywhere. They’re generally very small — most of them you’d need a microscope to see — and there are tens of thousands of different species. You get them at the bottom of the ocean, and on top of mountains. They’ve even survived re-entry from space without protection. They can be tough little guys. No surprises that they’re alive and well in Antarctica too, where Dr Wall studies them, and the other tiny things that live in the ground, like algae and fungi and bacteria. These microbes together make up a globe-spanning below-ground ecosystem, and their collective health has direct consequences on life above ground, too. Without life below ground, there might not even be life above ground. But today’s episode is going to be looking at exactly what that life looks like. Is it friendly? Is it a foe? The answer, of course, is complicated, and to riddle this out we’re going to need to get down and dirty with the nematodes.
DIANA WALL: We tend to look at it, as biologists, just as a system of wonder, and that there’s all these shapes and sizes and how they manipulate in this dark universe.
DAN CRANE: That’s as true in somewhere as seemingly cold and desolate as Antarctica as it is anywhere else. And one of the things that’s so wonderful, when talking to an expert like Dr Wall, is how much they love exploring the hidden world that they study. When’s she talking about the different species you’ll find in the dirt, under a microscope — and not just nematodes by the way — she gets giddy, saying things like…
DIANA WALL: Have you ever seen a microarthropod? They’re fantastic. Oh my God. They’re just big, and some of them have feathers, or it looks like feathers on them…
DAN CRANE: Or…
DIANA WALL: I had no idea that these things as big as, you know, an eyelash, that you would look at them and pretty soon you would say, oh, that’s Noah! Oh, that’s Diana! You know, you could identify ’em under a microscope by their, their characteristics, and they’re very different.
DAN CRANE: Here’s the thing. There’s a growing list of health problems which, evidence seems to suggest, are becoming more common for people living in richer countries because our lives are too clean. Increased rates of allergies are linked to the simple fact that kids don’t play in the dirt like they used to. And these microbes and worms crawling around in the soil, in Colorado and in Antarctica and everywhere else, they might be the reason why. After centuries of humans—sometimes clumsily, sometimes deliberately — working out that being clean equals not dying so much, we seem to have gone too damn far, and lost our connection with the world around us. Well, within us as well, in the case of gut bacteria. By not exposing ourselves to the world around us, we lost natural resilience and immunities.
Or did we? Well, let’s get back to the dancing nematodes, shall we. They’re going to help us figure this all out.
DIANA WALL: And I went and had wine and then it was like a year and a half and I never heard anything and all of a sudden she called me up and said, guess what, you got the play.
DAN CRANE: Dirt!: A Terra Nova Expedition opened on the 5th April 2018, at the Bas Bleu Theater in Fort Collins, Colorado.
LAURA PRITCHETT: I wanted a story that would hold the dirt and all the climate change and soil science, and so what I came up with was an underground bunker in the unforeseen future. I mean, it could be tomorrow, it could be 20 years from now. And there is a young female scientist who’s just discovered she’s pregnant and her lover takes off.
PLAY CLIP: We have foreknowledge, we have mortality salience. We know about the planet and what she can no longer do. What she can no longer hold or care for.
LAURA PRITCHETT: So he sacrifices himself so he can live, and meanwhile she’s conducting scientific experiments and so that way I could get in some of the science on stage, you know, as active drama. But meanwhile she starts kind of hallucinating as a way to keep her sanity, you know, to daydream her way through the time until she can go above ground.
PLAY CLIP: Am I dead? I stayed so long alone that, maybe, maybe I’m not. I might be imagining you, daydreaming you, because you’re what I most need.
DAN CRANE: The hallucinations include famous scientists from history, bringing warnings about the collapse of soil — the kinds of warnings we heard about in episode two. And there’s the nematodes too, of course — but don’t let the dancing worms distract from the real message here.
LAURA PRITCHETT: I get on this rampage about if scientists were better at finding a story to hold their information, and the story would hold everything, as a way of making it interesting to the world. And I mean this is a very old human tradition of putting information into story. But I don’t find that scientists do a great job at that all the time.
DAN CRANE: Rebuilding soil, or a gut microbiome, are tasks that are never truly done, for Laura or for any of us — any living, mutualistic ecosystem needs care and maintenance, whether it’s a garden, a farm, a body, or a planet. But how to talk about that is an ongoing problem for the people who study these systems. How do you balance warning people enough to take action, but at the same time not under-selling so much it causes complacency?
Well, this podcast series exists for a similar reason, too — there’s so much happening beneath us in the ground, yet the stories about what’s happening… Well, for example, we’ve talked a lot about climate change on this show, but we all know how climate change science and stories can fail to convince some people. That’s as much down to the media at times as the scientists, themselves, sure, but it’s true what Laura says. The most important stories, the ones that could change the world, aren’t the same as the most effective stories, and that’s especially true in science.
Now, let’s dive into one of those stories, now, because it’s one that I didn’t know about until we started making this show, but it is incredibly important. It’s the story of the largest pandemic you’ve never heard of. And our friends, the dancing nematodes? They’ve got a starring role. It also shows pretty effectively why, throughout history, we humans have spent so much time figuring out cleaner lives. Getting dirty, and reconnecting with life in the soil, isn’t exclusively good or bad — and understanding that can open up new ways of understanding the importance of the life in soil for our planet.
Just like we use the word “bug” as a collective name for bacteria or viruses whose only similarities are that they make us sick, there’s a name for parasitic worms like flatworms, hookworms, and, yes, our erstwhile dancing roundworm nematodes. That word is “helminths.” Remember it, we will be talking about them a lot over the next few minutes.
NAOMI CLARKE: And they have all slightly different life cycles. But in general they have a lot of common features.
DAN CRANE: This is Dr Naomi Clarke, from the Research School of Global Health at the Australian National University in Canberra. She specializes in helminths that live in soil.
NAOMI CLARKE: The common features are that basically, um, someone who’s infected with these worms, the worms live inside their gut and the worms lay eggs.
DAN CRANE: If you live somewhere without access to sanitary toilets and clean water — especially places where the toilets are holes in the dirt — those eggs are happy to wait in the ground for a long time. Then maybe you don’t wash your hands thoroughly enough when preparing food, or you walk barefoot over the wrong patch of land. Bang, you’re infected, and the cycle begins again in your intestine.
There are seven and a half billion people on Earth right now, give or take a few, and one and a half billion of us are infected with helminths, contracted from soil. That’s one in five of… everyone. That point earlier about scientists being bad at telling important stories? Yep, this has historically been one of those cases.
This isn’t to say that nobody’s noticed this happening, to be fair. Dr Clarke’s one of thousands of experts around the world researching them. But not for nothing are the soil-transmitted helminths included on an international list of “neglected tropical diseases” by the World Health Organization, along with things like Dengue fever and rabies, and even snakebites. The neglected tropical diseases, or “NTDs” for short, are bound together by the mutual disinterest much of the wealthier non-tropical world shows in spending money on fighting them.
NAOMI CLARKE: They’re a really diverse group of infections, but one of the main things that they have in common is that they tend to affect people who live in poverty.
DAN CRANE: The most dramatic problems make the headlines, and attract the aid dollars.
NAOMI CLARKE: And so when you put these diseases together, they actually cause a huge burden on the health of the global population, but as their name suggests, they are neglected. So in the past they’ve received very little funding and very little interest compared to what we call the big three diseases. So the big three disease being HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, which obviously have a massive impact on the health of global population as well.
DAN CRANE: And actual death is always more immediately obvious a problem than, for example, what the helminths do, which is cause chronic disability. They sit in your gut, sucking nutrients out of your blood.
NAOMI CLARKE: Children who have heavy and chronic infections with these worms, they, they don’t grow properly. They don’t develop cognitively as well as they could, they struggle with school more than they could if they were healthy and unaffected with worms.
DAN CRANE: You don’t see the effects of the helminths in a country’s mortality rate. You instead see it in school test scores, national productivity levels, and other nuanced and abstracted statistical measures. If you head to howwegettonext.com, we’ve published a companion explainer going into more depth on exactly how people track what different NTDs are doing. But again, just because their effects are subtle, doesn’t make them any less real.
NAOMI CLARKE: So what we see with soil-transmitted helminths and with other neglected tropical diseases is that people can’t fulfill their potential, and so they get trapped in this cycle of poverty, because of these diseases.
DAN CRANE: Hundreds of millions of people, mostly children, shouldn’t have to deal with this, because preventing and curing these infections is actually shockingly simple. Build better toilets, pave the ground, give or sell people shoes, and dispense simple, cheap drugs. Although, since the drugs don’t create permanent immunity like a vaccine, dealing with the primary source is still the key solution. Deworming programs can help too, running over six to twelve months at a time, often in extremely isolated, rural communities. Government teams in affected countries, working often with groups of international researchers from charities or other organizations, spend their time trekking from community to community, dispensing drugs in schools, or even going house to house.
NAOMI CLARKE: You know, I did some research based out in East Timor and we were looking at comparing school versus community distribution of drugs and just from my few days on the ground during that project, you know, you were walking sometimes kilometers between houses in the heat of the day and in a tropical country only to find out the, you know, the family wasn’t home, and you had to then go back the next day. So the logistics of that are challenging. And the cost is obviously higher.
DAN CRANE: The most effective way to do all this is to invite these communities into the process of improving their sanitation. Just handing out drugs doesn’t do anything for building longer term suppression of the helminths. The best programs tend to not force people to change their behavior, but to convince them. And they try to work with what people will have access to nearby, so that when new sanitation systems break, they’re easy and cheap to fix.
The last few years have seen the first large, coordinated international response to NTDs, after a declaration was signed in 2012, in London, by a number of governments, large pharmaceutical companies, and NGOs. (Including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which, full disclosure, supports this show. Thanks Bill & Melinda.)
The goal for the World Health Organization is, by 2020, to have treated three-quarters of the nearly a billion children at risk here. Things are slowly getting better, especially because it turns out that some of the drugs required overlap in what they do. The drugs that kill helminths also kill the mosquito-transmitted worms that cause elephantiasis, for example. That was what the elephant man had, if you remember the elephant man.
Helminths have been a problem for every single civilization in human history, and can come back as problems again if the conditions for cleanliness and decent access to healthcare are taken away. Back in the 1930s, studies in the southern US found that as many as a third of African-Americans had hookworm; today, as rural communities in those areas see their access to healthcare get worse and worse, we’re seeing a resurgence of soil-transmitted helminths in the richest country in the world. Current estimates have it that as many as 12 million Americans, largely in the south, are infected.
Back in episode one, I talked about how things that seem to happen in one place, often don’t only happen in one place. That was about climate change, but it’s just as true when it comes to life in the soil. For those of us with the good fortune to live somewhere where we don’t have to worry about helminths, it’s easy to think it’s some kind of “over there” problem. Sure. That’s why we have a problem with neglected tropical diseases being, well, neglected.
But from the perspective of soil, thinking in terms of “over there” doesn’t really make sense.
NOAH FIERER: So the motivation was like, OK, what project can we do that will sort of highlight the diversity of organisms that we see in soil.
DAN CRANE: This is Noah Fierer, a microbial ecologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He and his team did something in 2014 that illustrates exactly what I mean here.
NOAH FIERER: So we started thinking of like, OK, where do we collect samples from, and we’re like, what’s the most iconic location with soil around the globe. We’re like, oh, Central Park, right?
DAN CRANE: Noah and his team spent the summer sweating it out with the hot dog vendors and the jugglers and the tourists in the middle of New York City, taking up hundreds of different samples of soil from around the park. What they found was a hidden universe. In just the top two inches of soil, there were an astonishing 167,000 different microbes living in the soil across the park — and the vast majority of them were completely unknown to science. And hey, if they can make it in Central Park in New York City, they can make it anywhere.
NOAH FIERER: A lot of the organisms that we find in Central Park, we also see if we look across this broad range of ecosystems, scattered across the globe. And what that means is, if you’re looking for a broad range of different microbes, different soil microbes, you don’t have to travel to Alaska or Antarctica or, you know, Saharan desert or a tropical rainforest, you can literally just walk across Central Park and find a lot of these soil microorganisms.
DAN CRANE: It’s not like the universe beneath our feet is exactly the same everywhere in the world, of course, but it’s remarkable, isn’t it? No matter how small the little corner neighborhood park you walk your dog in, you’re always going to be walking on much the same planet-wide dark universe, helminths and bacteria and fungi and everything. And as we talked about in episode two, a major part of the reason that soil is so important is that it isn’t just a thing we grow food in — it’s an ecosystem in its own right.
NOAH FIERER: And one thing we’re very interested in now is identifying microorganisms in soil, particularly those that haven’t been described, which is the vast majority of them. So which ones are beneficial to plants? We’re really good at identifying those that hurt plants, those that are pathogens. We’re not so good at identifying those that may actually promote plant growth or improve plant health, and that’s something that we’re very interested in working on right now, because if you could figure those out, then you can say, OK, well, could we add these microbes into soil or put them on seeds to try to get those plants to grow better? And that’s something we’re actively working on right now.
DAN CRANE: Back in episode one, I made the point that it’s kind of ridiculous how little we understand about the ground beneath our feet. This is the kind of diversity I was talking about. And it’s not just bacteria, it’s the nematodes too. There are more than 40,000 different species of those, but we’ve only catalogued about half of them. Some of them hurt us, like the helminths, but plenty more of them might be potential allies.
Fighting disease and poverty on the human level is important, but so is making sure that we’re not approaching problems in a way that could have unexpected, negative consequences. “Unknown unknowns,” if you will. Wipe out the gut biome, get health problems. Wipe out the soil biome, who knows what chain reactions will be set off.
NOAH FIERER: So people always ask me like, oh, do you ever find, for example, new bacteria in soil? And the problem is, is most of the bacteria we see in soil are new, right? In other words, unknown to science, undescribed. We know that they’re there, but they don’t have a name. We don’t know what those bacteria, for example, may be doing in soil, how they sort of make a living and why they’re found in one soil for example, but not in another. And that work in Central Park really highlighted that and that, you know, only 10 to 15 percent of the microorganisms we find in soil have been described. The vast majority are essentially undescribed and we don’t much if anything about them.
DAN CRANE: Figuring out what those bacteria are, and what they do, isn’t just an intellectual exercise. It could save lives. It also happens to be one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in microbiology. But don’t take my word for it.
KIM LEWIS: Well, you know, I was always attracted to difficult problems. So, uncultured bacteria is the oldest unsolved problem in microbiology.
DAN CRANE: Here’s Dr Kim Lewis. Now he’s a distinguished professor of molecular microbiology at Northeastern University in Boston. He’s been trying to solve this problem, and the reason is simple. Pretty much every antibiotic we’ve ever found came from soil, and it’s because of that diversity we’ve been talking about. Way down in the dark universe of soil, it’s chaotic and cramped. Microbes fight each other, evolving chemicals that they can pump out as weapons in a never-ending arms race. Those weapons, those chemicals, are what antibiotics are. And Dr Lewis is one of the first people to find a new antibiotic in decades.
KRON 4 NEWS: New, tonight at eight, world health experts are sounding the alarm about a new epidemic that threatens to be bigger than the AIDS crisis.
CBS NEWS: A new study is raising flags about the continuing rise in antibiotic resistance.
DAN CRANE: If you’ve read or seen recently any stories about how we’re running out of antibiotics, how bacteria are becoming resistant to many of our most potent drugs, leading to everything from incurable gonorrhea to superbugs that stalk the corridors of emergency wards in hospitals, there’s a reason for that. We used to look for antibiotics in soil, and then, around the mid-1960s, we stopped.
KIM LEWIS: Yes, this dried out by about, I would say the mid-sixties. That is what usually happens with any type of mining, you over-mine the source, and then you run out.
DAN CRANE: It was down to a simple problem. If you want to steal a chemical weapon from a microbe and use it for yourself as an antibiotic, you’ve got to get a few of those microbes onto a petri dish in a lab and allow them to reproduce, so there are enough of them making a human-sized dose. But for most of scientific history, 99 percent of microbes wouldn’t grow in the lab. The one percent left over was the low-hanging fruit that we ate up, decades ago.
KIM LEWIS: And so, my colleague Slava Epstein, at my department here at Northeastern was also thinking about this problem. We decided to, to collaborate on finding a solution.
DAN CRANE: Dr Lewis and Dr Epstein are both former citizens of the Soviet Union — Epstein was born there, Lewis was taken there as a two-year-old by his communist American mother. Thanks mom. They later met up in the United States after making their separate ways across the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, and since then they’ve established themselves as kind of a big deal in the world of molecular microbiology. That’s because they worked out how to grow a lot more of that mystery 99 percent in the lab, using a special kind of petri dish you can bury in the ground. It confuses the bacteria and makes them think they’re still growing in normal soil.Think of it like how realtors use the smell of fresh-baked cookies to help sell a house. You know it’s not real, but your nose still smells cookies, and your brain still thinks the house is cosier than it actually might be. And who doesn’t love cookies?
KIM LEWIS: And bacteria are tricked, so they don’t know that something happened to them and they grow into colonies, and then you can take the chamber out of the soil, and now you, you have a colony of these previously inaccessible bacteria. You can study them, you can use them to isolate for antibiotics.
DAN CRANE: With this clever trick, they can reduce that 99 percent of soil microbes not growing in the lab, down to about 50 percent. Now that these new vistas have been opened for exploration, Lewis and Epstein have been hard at work figuring out whether there are also new antibiotics in there that we might find useful. And in 2015, they were part of a team that announced the discovery of what could be the first new class of antibiotics in decades. It’s a big deal. It won’t work on every bacteria, but it does work on a lot of different kinds that cause illness in humans. Ones responsible for diseases like tuberculosis, for example. But most amazingly, it also does it in a way that, as far as we know, nature has no way of evolving resistance to.
KIM LEWIS: So it looks like Mother Nature produced this compound that evolved to be largely protected from resistance development. Not only on practical grounds, but also on theoretical grounds, I think this is the best-protected compound from resistance that we have ever seen.
DAN CRANE: Now, a note of caution here. This is still very early days. You can’t go to your doctor and ask for a prescription for this antibiotic, just yet, because it’s still undergoing early tests. It hasn’t even been tried in humans yet. Nor have 34 other potential drugs that have been found in soil so far by Lewis and his colleagues.
KIM LEWIS: Well, you see, it’s not like we have 35 drugs. There’s a very long road between finding something new that has activity against the bacteria in a test tube, and having a drug that is going to work in the humans without killing us.
DAN CRANE: So, maybe a new wonder drug, found in soil? But to bring it back to Noah, and to the Central Park study that found dirt in a city park was a universe of mysteries, a wonder drug doesn’t necessarily require a wonder soil.
KIM LEWIS: So after the discovery pipeline dried up by the 60s, a number of groups including industries started going to all kinds of exotic locations, like the rainforests and the depths of the ocean, and the desert. That has not been terribly productive. So we get our uncultured bacteria from our backyards, which are suburbs of Boston, and this came from a soil sample just in a meadow in Maine.
DAN CRANE: All it took to find a new potential wonder drug was driving for a couple of hours out from their lab, and picking up some dirt from a meadow in Maine. Oh yeah, and we’re not just talking antibiotics, too.
KIM LEWIS: Soil bacteria can produce drugs that hit pretty much any target, and could be useful for any disease.
DAN CRANE: Cancer drugs, allergy medicines, anti-inflammatories, and more—those are all types of drugs which were originally found in soil. That’s the potential we’re talking about here, and, when we say that we have to respect the life in the ground beneath us as much as possible, that means understanding and appreciating everything from antibiotic-producing bacteria to dancing nematodes. That the ground beneath us is both a source of health and sickness, in innumerable interwoven, interconnecting ways.
NOAH FIERER: We all know that those soil organisms are important for growing our crops, right? For purifying our water, for example. And there may be some role of these organisms in improving human health, right? Of course, some of them are pathogens, but some of them may actually help, you know, or be for responsible, for example, for training our immune systems, and that’s a really burgeoning area of research, is, is it good to be exposed to these soil organisms? And there’s some evidence that they can be good. We don’t want to live in a sterile environment, that’s not good, and, you know, being out there and being exposed to soil organisms could be a way to help us train our immune system and, and, and improve our health.
DAN CRANE: Similarly to the NTDs, the effects might not be grabbing headlines. But we might remember to give thanks to dirt next time we’re prescribed medication. We may struggle along and occasionally curse it, as Laura Pritchett did with her soil in her garden, which refused to let her plants grow. But we’ll probably never fully understand the dark universe beneath our feet. We’d need some way to completely filter and sort every tiny speck of life down there, analyze it, categorize it, inspect it. It’s surely impossible.
KIM LEWIS: It sounds like an impossible proposition, but I think it’s actually doable, and my lab is developing an approach to actually do that.
DAN CRANE: Wait, seriously?
KIM LEWIS: Well, can we do this. I will not answer that question, intentionally. I will leave you and your listeners intrigued. And let’s see, and let see if maybe they can, because one of the solutions is very simple for this problem but perhaps we will publish that in a year or so and then everybody will know how it works.
DAN CRANE: Wow, way to leave us on a cliffhanger, Kim. Alright, sure, if you’re a scientist who found a new antibiotic, that’s the kind of thing you can get away with being mysterious about. I’ve talked about how the story of soil involves a perspective shift. An understanding that things that happen in one place, don’t only happen in one place.
It’s also a perspective shift like a kind of meditation, like when you’re trying to concentrate on the world around you, and within you. When you start breathing consciously, instead of letting your body do it automatically for you. Next time you’re in a park, take your shoes and socks off. Rub your toes in the dirt. Connect with nature, dude, get dirty, and for a brief moment, reconnect with the dark universe that keeps us all alive. I was actually just in Spain with my ten-month-old daughter, and I was excited to let her just play around in the dirt in the garden, it was great. Her grandmother wasn’t particularly happy, but I told her it was actually quite good for her.
Now afterwards, put your shoe and your socks back on, and continue with your day, or your week, or your month. But every now and again, try to remember that connection between your existence and the existence beneath. Try to get dirty once in a while.