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WHAT IF: Bacteria that leap through time

By Jean Salgados | Editor-in-chief

Feb. 14, 2020

A Reddit thread in a group called “Shower Thoughts” has a post that says: Due to the evolution of bacteria with respect to your body’s natural defense mechanisms, traveling forward in time could kill you, and traveling back in time could kill everyone. It’s a no brainer for the students and staff that are well-versed in this line of expertise, yet it offers a good outlet for discussion. What would happen if we leaped through time? Will there be a catastrophe or will there be little to no changes at all? 

Adaptation. How does it work?

Let’s begin by tackling the concept of adaptation. Based on the theory proposed by the Father of Evolution—Charles Darwin—certain species are defined by the traits they have acquired over generations of recent or common ancestry like how modern wolves and breeds of dogs evolved from a common ancient wolf ancestor. These traits are acquired through natural selection signified by the modern wolves, or by selective breeding which led to most exotic dog breeds. 

Adaptation to external pressures is part of the evolutionary success of a species. But by and by a species will reach the point of extinction. A species may either fail to adapt fast enough or get quickly killed off with no opportunity to reproduce viable offspring. This relates very much to our case because the more simple an organism gets, the quicker the adaptation to external pressure. Organisms have what we call “generation time” which simply put is the average of time (could be any time measurement) between two consecutive generations in a population. For humans, it is 22 to 33 years. Bacteria, on the other hand, have enough time for you to watch one episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is about 20 minutes. 

Basing off that we can then say it will take an incredible amount of human lives, and bacteria, to achieve a unique genetic mutation spanning generations of testing whether or not this trait will be any use in the long run. A great example of this is how the Bajau population of Indonesia have evolved larger spleens in a span of 1,000 years to stay underwater for longer. Bacteria have also made their rapid and worrying evolutions such as resistance to penicillin and amoxicillin which are commonly used antibiotics.

Ferdinand Bacteria and Lapu-Virus

With all that in mind, let us jump back 500 years in our floral polo shirt and white shorts-shoes combination and meet Magellan and the Spanish inquisitors and the Filipino tribes headed by Lapu-Lapu. 

Right off the bat, there won’t be anything serious, but give it a few weeks and you start to see the effects which are also not that serious depending on the environment in present-day Dumaguete. Turns out that from a bacterial infection perspective, bodies of both the Filipino and Spanish are quite capable of combating this modern version of bacteria through organisms called antibodies. Our immune system is one impressive machine. Given the bacteria isn’t severe, then it is highly possible our bodies can stand off against it and eventually become resistant to it. However, all forms of bacterial illness will greatly affect those with weak immune systems, resulting in deaths from your bacteria.

A virus will be slightly different but essentially the same. Viruses stand a better chance at starting epidemics than bacteria. It requires a living host in order to replicate and it can infect all types of lifeforms, including bacteria. The slight difference would be their rapidly increasing severity and replication speed. This difference would go on to be their own weakness. The survival of a virus relies on how severe it is; the deadlier it is the more likely it will fail to spread thus leading to its own death. Viruses like smallpox are considered young evolution-wise and are very much deadly as they have only made a transition to humans in the last couple thousand years. Viruses like influenza are among those that have significantly reduced their deadliness and have opted instead to affect immune weakened individuals just like the bacteria would.

But if for some reason smallpox did infect the Filipinos and Spanish, an Escaño kid will have most likely come from a population that survived the worst of the illnesses and would have the information stored away in their vast folds of genes, waiting for the right external pressures to bring it back into usage by memory cells.

Future Fights Fought Despite Futility

This time we are now 500 years into the future, with no clear image on what to expect. Unlike the past, future organisms may have evolved some traits that are unknown to our body’s immune system. This is where great care is required on the part of the individual. Evolutionary ages of most organisms are considered old and complexity in their makeup is quite extensive, but that doesn’t mean human bodies can’t keep up.

Our greatest weapon against unknown diseases is our ability to come up with powerful medications against them and our equally powerful ability to selectively evolve them. In a hypothetical future where an Escaño kid will get infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the medication they will receive might be just as effective as common antibiotics but a different chemical altogether. Or the bacteria has devolved its resistance to common antibiotics because medical practitioners use different kinds of medications to combat them.

To conclude…

The shower thought offers endless and timeless answers; this writeup only expresses one of many ideas and fact-reinforced hypotheses. Maybe when the time comes that new diseases will emerge, we can be sure that our bodies will be prepared, along with the help of medical science. The immune system is a wonderful thing, protecting us from dangers we cannot even detect with our senses. Whether you come across a time traveler or just a person from your neighborhood, you can walk easy knowing that your body will never give up on you to the very end of your lifetime.

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