Microbial Mob Mentality – In The Wake Of The Vancouver Riots

Clearly, the ability of bacteria to communicate with each other is limited – their unicellular form restricts them in this endeavour.  Bacteria can, however, communicate by giving off signals called quorum sensing molecules.  These molecules are constantly released by bacteria to let each other know how many of them are in the immediate vicinity.  When they realize that they have enough of their buddies around, their behaviour suddenly changes and the whole group begins acting in a different manner, often manifesting as an infection (note: the best lecture that I have seen on quorum sensing is available for free below from TED, and it’s only 20 minutes long).  Only recently, riots quickly engulfed my hometown of Vancouver, and I was struck by how similar the two processes were.  It gives me a small measure of satisfaction to write a piece comparing mindless bacteria to the equally mindless degenerates that briefly infected our city on June 15th.

It was a beautiful day in downtown Vancouver – the sun was shining, there was ample food and drink, and the area had been opened up to pedestrian traffic.  Biologically speaking, Vancouver’s open streets were like a surgical incision, highly susceptible to an infection.  As more and more people flooded into the downtown core, the more dangerous the situation became.  Let me be clear, not everyone entering the core was there to start trouble – far from it.  The troublemakers, veritable human pathogens in my opinion, walked amongst the peaceful visitors, slowly building in numbers to a point that was far above the norm.

The troublemakers had eventually reached a quorum.  I don’t know what first sparked the incidents.  It could have been a fire, it could have been a punch.  It could have simply been a discouraging word uttered in the aftermath of a heartbreaking loss to a strong opponent.  Whatever instigated the event is more-or-less irrelevant; the population that was ready and willing to do the real damage was already there, waiting for the signal that would propel them all into destructive action.

The microbial community associated with gum disease, for example, is complex, but fairly well understood.  Certain bacteria are known to cause disease, and certain bacteria are associated with health.  When the balance shifts and the bad bacteria begin causing damage, the good bacteria can respond in a number of ways.  Some will actively, and usually hopelessly, compete to regain their space, like the Good Samaritans that have garnered fame for defending storefronts and vehicles.  Others will simply leave the area, giving the nastier bacteria the space they are vigorously claiming.  Some, disconcertingly, stay, acting as a scaffold that supports the bad bacteria as they grow.  Some bacteria that are normally good can get caught up in the inflammation, and contribute further to the disease.  We saw a little of each in Vancouver.  Were the people who stood around watching the riot intentionally trying to support the looting and civil disorder in front of them?  I don’t think so.  They did, however, give the rioters unquestionable advantages by anchoring them in the “infected” area and making it harder for the authorities to efficiently separate the malicious people from the benign.

Infections usually result in one of two outcomes – death or recovery.  Vancouver certainly didn’t die that evening, thanks in large part to our immune system – the Vancouver Police Department – which quelled the disturbance in approximately three hours.  What allowed them to act so efficiently in the face of a massive disturbance that spawned from a crowd of roughly 300,000 people?  In part, it was the fact that they had gained experience from a similar incident in 1994.  Acquired immunity is when the immune system learns how to deal with a particular disease causing agent by defeating it once, and the police had certainly remembered the lessons they’d learned 17 years prior.  In the ‘94 incident, one third the number of people took twice as long to control.  Further, the VPD had recently received a metaphorical booster shot from the crowd control activities of the Olympic Games.  Dealing with a much less “pathogenic” crowd in 2010 certainly aided them in their preparations for the onslaught they faced in 2011.

By the time morning came, most of the damage causing entities had been removed, and the city’s wound was beginning to heal.  Wooden boards covered broken shop windows, bearing messages of regret and hope like the cast on a child’s recently broken arm.  Lessons were learned and relearned. Steps were taken against the perpetrators in the hopes of discouraging similar future behaviour. Remnants and debris were being cleared by the real citizens of the region.  As the healing continues, the world will cringe less and less at Vancouver’s disfiguring scar, recognizing instead, the ugly face of the unprevented quorum.

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