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Lyme Disease
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Last updated January 1, 2014

World of Wonder in Lyme Bacterium


© Harold Roy, Cape Code Times, July 13, 2005

I don't know much about God or science, but find myself fascinated by the current debate between intelligent design advocates and evolutionists which is going on largely in Bible belt states. The ID folks argue that some intervening intelligent being creates life in its multiplicity of forms. The evolutionists see a random and incessant process of slow changes producing the most robust life forms, for that time and place, anyway.

I personally believe that evolution is God's way of getting the results he wants, and that he has a lot of fun doing it. But I don't know for sure, and don't expect to.

Each of us is awesome-a universe of billions of cells, awash in oceans of bio-chemicals. One celled bacteria were quite different, dull, or so I thought. I was raking leaves at a home near Lake Wequaquet on a Saturday in April 1986. On Monday, I felt very weak, and was at a doctor's by Thursday. I had three reddish oval rashes on my chest, but back then, physicians were looking for the now ''classic'' bulls eye rashes, so my Lyme Disease went undiagnosed.

I recovered some on my own, without treatment, but had numerous relapses over the next months. A year after the tick bite, I could barely get out of bed. For the next eight years, I was diagnosed, wrongly, with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In 1995, my Lyme was detected by an astute physician to whom I went to for another problem. In the next years I received substantial oral anti-biotic treatment. It lifted me out of the zombie category, but I never will be genuinely healthy. All the symptoms continue, less severe, and so does the characteristic cycling. Now, depending on who I ask, I have Chronic Lyme Disease with continuing infection and an up-regulated immune system, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, cause unknown , or Fibromyalga Syndrome, cause unknown, or Post Lyme Syndrome, with an auto-immune etiology.

I became curious about why medicine has so many different views of the same set of symptoms.

The dispute is over whether the causative agent of Lyme, the spirochete bacterium Borrellia burgdorferi (Bb), eludes both the immune system and significant courses of antibiotic treatment, as some say, or if the host individual experiences some sort of post-infectious syndrome. The debate is heated, to say the least. Other spirochetes cause syphilis and Relapsing Fever.

These Bb little guys are only 20 microns, 20 millionths of a meter long. They move with the aid of flagella, like little worms with several sets of legs. They sequester in numerous tissues, preferring neural tissue. Bb's locomotive capacities allow it to move from through the skin and into the blood stream, then into other parts of the body including the brain.

Antigenic variation is another tactic of Bb survival, and is a very interesting phenomenon. Bacteria have Outer Surface Proteins (OSPs), or antigens, to which the humoral immune system develops antibodies which then attack and destroy the bacterium. Antigenic variation gives the bacterium the capacity to up-regulate (increase the number) or down regulate specific OSPs, presenting a complex and varying pattern to the immune system. A set of antibodies sufficient to control the bacteria's spread at one point becomes inadequate later.

Other cards up Bb's sleeve are that, in the host, it can exist in alternate forms, against which antibiotics are ineffective. It has a cyst form, an egg- like mode from which the full bacterium can later emerge.

Another variation is a cell wall deficient form, which protected it from antibiotics which attack cell walls. Bb also exchanges DNA with others of its kind. This is the mechanism which produces bacterial antibiotic resistance, which has become a very serious medical problem.

Bacteria have been shown to communicate bio-chemically with each other. Bb may be one of those with this capacity, and there is evidence that it produces neurotoxins.

So, our agile little friend is quite gifted, a wondrous thing really, not merely a brainless one cell simpleton. It uses it complex strategies to survive and reproduce, as do we all. As with the AIDs virus, it is small but not fragile, and is no easy foe. It seems quite plausible that it may be extremely hard to eradicate.

It was Blake who asked that we see a world in a grain of sand. I have come to understand that there is a stunning beauty to Bb and other bacteria. Even the smallest living things, including those which may harm or kill us as they live out their lives, are gloriously endowed.

Whether life is designed or evolves, or both, it displays a complexity and magnificence to its many forms that speaks of more than we can ever know.


Harold Roy lives in Harwich.




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