Guest Column: A little dirt might be good for you

By Julie Drake
Special to the Herald Times
RBC | John Deere had a popular T-shirt about 15 years ago that said “Dirt—it does the body good.” This statement is proving to be truer than any T-shirt wearing kid knew.
It is interesting to read some of the current research around human immunity and soil biodiversity. Much of it comes from Colorado State University. In an article titled “Soil Biodiversity and Human Health,” researcher Diana Wall points out that improving soil biodiversity will improve human health. This concept is gaining momentum in public health circles as well

Julie Drake

Bio-diversity means having abundant and varied life within the soil. Some of the organisms are bad, some are good. Anthrax may be lying dormant in the soil, and is obviously bad, whereas other less virulent microorganisms in the soil may help lessen the prevalence of allergies in people. So the theory goes, exposure to dirt (and the microorganisms within) as a kid causes an immune reaction that helps us develop a tolerance to pathogens. Researchers speak of beneficial predators and microbes in the “soil food web.” Many of the antibiotics in use today are derived from soils. Penicillin came from Penicillium, a fungus found in soil, and Vancomycin came from a bacterium found in dirt. Researchers from Northeastern University have identified a new antibiotic from a soil sample in Maine that can kill several species including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
A USDA soil scientist friend of mine just led me to the works of Dr. David Montgomery, a professor and researcher from the University of Washington in Seattle. His work shows the correlation and connection between the human microbiome (all of the microrganisms in our body) and the microbial health in soils. If you have a few minutes check out Dr. Montgomery on YouTube. His recorded presentation called “Hidden Half of Nature” is superb. It is interesting to think about the possibilities as integration of research and knowledge of disease from humans, plants and animals become more prevalent and trusted. There may be a day where the soil scientist, farmer, rancher, environmental engineer, veterinarian, physician and public health official sit at the same table to tackle a problematic disease or health condition.

Julie Drake is the director of public health for Rio Blanco County.