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Super Bugged

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Super Bugged

            What could super bugs, bees, and trees have in common?  That the human, plant, and animal world are suffering hugely and exacting losses is a good place to begin.  Not only are these living families of life dying in unprecedented numbers, in each case a super bug of one sort or another has been identified as the causal agent.

            Among humans MRSA has been in the news.  In the plant world the mighty oaks are not so mighty anymore, and in the animal world our favorite insect, the honeybee, is rapidly declining.

            Bacterial Leaf Scorch (BLS), the disease that is killing members of the red oak family in unprecedented numbers, is caused by a bacterium run amok, as is MRSA in humans.  Colony Collapse Disorder, a syndrome resulting in the demise of countless honeybees, is believed to be caused by a super bug of a viral nature.

            There are many corollaries underlying these losses.  The super bug causing MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, appears to be a new strain of a once innocuous staph bacterium.  The one causing BLS, Xylella fastidiosa, has always been present in the environment and only recently developed into a devastating and killing force.  The red oak family, which includes the beloved pin oak and other landscape favorites, is fully involved in this pernicious taking of life; and it is the belief of arborists worldwide that that the white oaks, sycamores, and maples are not far behind.  As for the honeybees, how could a microscopic virus so quickly gain an upper hand over such a common and giving bee?  To date this remains a mystery entomologists are working hard to unravel.  While it is true that honeybees have struggled for some time with various environmental challenges, this pathogen is causing catastrophic losses far exceeding anyone’s expectations.   

            In a relatively short period of time MRSA has surpassed the AIDS virus (another super bug) as an American life-taker.  This past year AIDS claimed approximately twelve and a half thousand American lives, while MRSA is estimated to have claimed upwards of nineteen thousand.  How could such a recently passive bacterium become one of the most invasive pathogens out there?

            A few short years ago BLS was thought to be a slow moving disease with little chance of contagion.  Now it is clearly a tree reaper with untold future consequences.

            MRSA has been shown to be resistant to treatment with many common antibiotics and is only responsive to the most exotic and powerful in our medicinal arsenal.  BLS similarly needs a specialized antibiotic treatment (oxytetracycline), but in the case of our trees this is only a disease management tool, not a cure. 

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            These challenging treatment scenarios have left health professionals, plant pathologists, and entomologists to suggest that we are at a tipping point with respect to resistance, both in America and globally.  Someone commenting on MRSA called world reaction an inappropriate alarm, but is it?  There have been too much suffering and too many lives lost not to be alarmed.  Similar thoughts were expressed by plant pathologists regarding BLS just a few short years ago, but not anymore.  With Colony Collapse among the bees, crossbreeding was thought to be the answer, but clearly something more is necessary.   What truly could have been done to avoid this tipping point of resistance?  What would make a difference?  The big picture is confusing and overwhelming. 

            Over many years of practicing my profession as an arborist I have been challenged by the rapid decline and loss of tree species.  Despite the many tools available to us and the support of skilled plant pathologists, we have not been able to effectively care for and protect some of the world’s greatest trees such as the mighty chestnuts and the grand elms.  In these cases we could gain some measure of understanding and find some degree of relief from feelings of professional and personal inadequacy in knowing that they were caused by pathogens or insects (killer bugs) that were introduced to America from afar.  We have learned that there may be unexpected environmental consequences to bringing foreign plants, insects, animals, and even cargo to our soil; and we’ve seen the solution as slapping our own hands and promising not to pull at the threads of life’s fabric so wantonly. 

            In the case of the BLS assault on the oaks, however, the identified causal agent (bacterium) has always been here.  So what has weakened the oaks and/or strengthened the bacterium enough to allow the unthinkable to happen?  Ultimately we will undoubtedly identify a combination of conditions that has allowed this once passive organism to morph into a more vigorous and tenacious super bug.  What we may never really understand is how the conditions favoring life have been replaced by conditions that allow this final decline to occur.  Alas, we will often be left with knowing that that which we see is being caused by something we don’t see. 

The word itself, resistance, may be the key.  Instead of fighting all of these super bugs on their terms, we may be better served by understanding how life’s resistance has been broken down.  Is it not the life in one and all that is threatened?  Regardless of our particular genesis and our eventual destination while sharing this planet, we also all draw from and need to give back to the river of life, which vitalizes, moves, and sustains life while in existence.  It is something so very precious, don’t you agree?  It is something that is often taken for granted until it is subdued, leaving us or being taken from someone or something that is important to us.

The reservoir of life itself may be failing, and our first concern should be to replenish it.  Might it soon occur to us, as humans, that what we know to be essential for our health and happiness is also necessary for the rest of the world around us?  Such basic things as fresh air, clean water, and wholesome food can only come to us if they are conceived and supported by the acts and structures of a living and vital world.

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            One thing we can be sure of is that every breath drawn and every spring bud unfolding is an act of the dynamism of life holding back the pernicious forces adept at taking life away.  These huge and belief-defying losses cannot be tolerated in a healthy and sustaining world.  Out among my leafy friends I am dismayed.  Who is stronger than the mighty oak?  Super bugs!

            The mechanisms of decline may be gaining an upper hand, and we must be concerned.  In the language of pathology and entomology, super bugs are often noted as life giving or life taking.  Terms like ‘beneficial fungi’ and ‘life-supporting bacteria’ versus designations like ‘decline organisms’ separate the good guys from the bad.  Implied in this nomenclature is that some microorganisms support health or life, while others foster decline.  Where have all the good guys gone? 

            Certain conditions favor the forces of life, while others accelerate the loss of life.  In humans, the key for a vigorous life is a safe and healthy environment, not toxic green lawns, excessively polluted water and air, and the stress pollutants of noise and light. Trees are much more vigorous and disease resistant when they are part of unmolested and intact forests, not surrounded by compacted soils, water diverted by grade changes, etc.  Honeybees are much more protected when surrounded by pesticide-free diverse food sources, not mono-cultured flowers saturated with EPA allotments of chemicals.  Individual losses or specific species’ decline typically point to a troubling imbalance in the bigger living system in which these losses occur. 

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At a time in history when there are unparalleled numbers of negative messages assaulting the human mind and heart, Stephen Redding radiates unmistakable optimism, faith, and promise. A survivor of many death-defying experiences, he believes that he (more...)

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