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Monique Keiran: Microbes ensure we are never alone

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Victoria this fall, and they came with an entire entourage.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Victoria this fall, and they came with an entire entourage. It included a team of Scotland Yard officers, a hairdresser, a stylist/personal assistant, an operations manager, a tour secretary, four press secretaries, three private secretaries, the two little kids and a nanny to look after them.

(No mention was made of partridges in pear trees.)

Will and Kate and their associates also came with a much more extensive microscopic entourage. Talking about royal cheek swabs may not be The Thing, but each healthy adult — in the royal party and out of it — is attended always and most intimately by many trillion bacteria, viruses, fungi, mites, bacteriophages and whatnot that cannot easily be seen.

(The children, whose collections of personal microbial assistants are still developing, are accompanied by fewer species and numbers of micro-critters.)

These suites of microbes line a person’s gut, airways and skin. They help us digest and absorb water and other nutrients from food, keep infection at bay, regulate our hormones and generally keep us healthy and functioning.

Some critters might be dangerous, but viruses, for example, or small numbers of aggressive Staphylococcus or Streptococcus bacteria might reside in a body without causing symptoms. Some microbes might be benign to those used to or immune to them, but problematic to others.

When captains James Cook and George Vancouver visited this region in the 1700s, they and their crews brought similar entourages. The long-distance sealers, whalers and fishermen who followed also came as hosts of entire hosts of micro-organisms.

The farmers who settled on the coast brought seeds, roots, shoots and live plants for food — wheat, oats, barley, possibly rye, cabbages, potatoes, turnips and other sturdy root vegetables, as well as fruit trees and canes. They brought livestock that fed on grain and seed-filled hay. Each individual, plant and plant component and animal came with its own microbial collection.

Among these imported microbes, influenza, cold, smallpox and chicken-pox viruses devastated First Nations communities. These particular critter species were new to B.C.’s indigenous peoples, who had cultivated their own, unique microbial communities over thousands of years.

A tree disease introduced in the early 1900s on nursery stock almost wiped out native western white pine trees and changed B.C. forests forever.

When nurseries imported and cities planted non-native ornamental hardwood trees in parks and gardens and along streets in the south coast region five decades ago, they introduced more than oaks, beeches, birches, chestnuts, horse chestnuts, hazels and hornbeams. They brought in Amanita phalloides, the fungus that fruits as the toxic death cap mushroom. Amanita phalloides can take up to five decades to start fruiting after being transplanted to a new environment.

Last month, within weeks of B.C.’s health officer issuing warnings about the deadly mushroom’s increasing prevalence, a three-year-old B.C. child died after eating a death cap mushroom foraged in a Victoria-area yard.

Whether in Europe’s hardwood forests, where these ornamental tree species originate, or in our forests, trees are only the most obvious members of the natural community. Forest trees and other plants are interconnected by complex networks of fungi that include A. phalloides.

Together, the fungi, like the microbes that live within and on humans, help the plants absorb water and nutrients from the soil, share nutrients among each other, keep infection and infestation at bay, regulate plant chemistry and generally keep the forest healthy and functioning.

When the European trees were planted throughout the Lower Mainland and south Island in the 1960s and 1970s, A. phalloides came along as part of the trees’ entourage, acting as the trees’ personal assistants/nutritionists/press secretaries.

It’s only in the past two decades that policymakers and border officials have started paying attention to potential agricultural, forest and water diseases and pests travelling global trade routes.

Immigration officials once routinely turned away travellers sick with tuberculosis and other highly infectious diseases. Now, while immigration officials eyeball individuals for costly health conditions and the means to pay for treatment if it is needed while in Canada, other border agents scrutinize shipping containers and packages for, among other things, unwanted plants, insects and other organisms that could harm our farms, waterways and forests.

Fortunately for royal watchers in B.C., such measures rarely extend to healthy people’s microbial entourages.

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