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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Infection

How a Bacteriophage (a Virus) infects a cell with its genetic material.
T4 bacteriophages targeting E. coli bacteria.
Bacteriophages are small viruses that infect bacteria and kill them by multiplying and essentially filling the bacterial cell to bursting.

My father-in-law suffered a burst appendix when he was younger. My friend Jack's father also suffered a burst appendix back in the 1920's. They both survived, obviously. This was in the days before antibiotics. It's something of a miracle that they survived. In Jack's father's case the doctors deliberately infected him with a normally life threatening disease (typhoid, perhaps) in the belief that this new infection would prompt his body to run a fever and so eliminate the infection in his abdomen. They repeated this "treatment" several times over a course of days or weeks. It prompted his body's temperature to climb to 105 degrees, but it eventually cured his infection.
    In Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, the nominal hero of our story, Half-Jack Shaftoe, is infected with syphilis, which is normally a fatal disease that ends by attacking the brain and driving people mad. At some point he contracts a fever which lasts several days and sends him into a delirium. After he recovers from the fever there is a period of time when there is some doubt whether his wits are still intact. His wits, of course, are fine, or we wouldn't be hearing about him. Presumably this kind of cure was a rare occurence.
    I tried to find any kind of reference to this sort of thing on the net, but I didn't have any luck. Not surprising since it doesn't jibe with our current science-knows-best world view. I did find a couple of interesting articles on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website.
    The first is Treatment of War Wounds: A Historical Review. It's a long story, but just the first couple of pages make some interesting reading all by themselves.
    The other is Phage treatment of human infections.Western civilization is only now starting to get onboard the phage train, probably because we're all from Missouri and it's only been recently that we have been able to see these boogers.

If you have ever been to India, or heard tales from people who have been there, you might wonder, like I did, why everybody there isn't dead. The Ganges river has to be the most unsanitary river in the world, but people live their entire lives with it. It's their bathtub, toilet and funeral parlor. I don't know if anyone actually drinks out of it, but at this point nothing would surprise me. Wikipedia also has something interesting to say about the Ganges and phages:
Since ancient times, reports of river waters having the ability to cure infectious diseases, such as leprosy, have been documented. In 1896, Ernest Hanbury Hankin reported that something in the waters of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India had marked antibacterial action against cholera and could pass through a very fine porcelain filter.
Makes me wonder whether there might be something to that business about the great cycle that seems to be at the heart of Indian mysticism.

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