When microbes kill us, it’s often by accident

Ed Yong in Aeon:

ScreenHunter_676 Jun. 05 11.30When microbes aren’t killing us, we are largely oblivious to them. So, we construct narratives of hosts and pathogens, heroes and villains, us and them. Those that cause disease exist to reproduce at our expense, and we need new ways of resisting them. And so we study how they evolve to outfox our immune system or to spread more easily from one person to another. We identify genes that allow them to cause disease and we label those genes as ‘virulence factors’. We place ourselves at the centre of their world. We make it all about us.

But a growing number of studies show that our anthropocentric view is sometimes unjustified. The adaptations that allow bacteria, fungi and other pathogens to cause us harm can easily evolve outside the context of human disease. They are part of a microbial narrative that affects us, and can even kill us, but that isn’t about us. This concept is known as the coincidental evolution hypothesis or, as the Emory University microbiologist Bruce Levin described it in 2008, the ‘shit happens’ hypothesis.

More here.