While science has greatly enhanced our ability to improve human health and longevity, Mother Nature has also provided us with many mechanisms to ward off disease. Our zeal to utilize products that kill microbes though might be counterproductive, even detrimental, to developing robust immune systems that are still learning to fight off bad bugs.

A few intriguing investigations support this notion. Two studies of 6,800 and 9,700 European children found that farm kids are less likely to develop asthma and other immune-based diseases. In both cases, researchers found germs on farms were beneficial to reducing allergies among farm children when compared to their city cousins, as reported in the scientific journal New England Journal of Medicine.

The research teams involved believe the variety of germs on farms could have many positive effects on our body's immune function. It is possible that the "good" microbes beat out "bad" ones, or they may teach our body's immune system how to best defend itself.

In a just-released study, Spanish researchers reconfirmed that beneficial bacteria help us much sooner in life. It is a concept that was well-documented in W.D. Hoard's time and continues to be the most important factor to successfully raising newborn calves - colostrum. However, this Spanish-led research effort focused on human breast milk, not cow's milk.

Their study was one of the first to document through DNA sequencing the vast biodiversity found in breast milk, be it colostrum or even after six months of breast-feeding. In fact, researchers pinpointed more than 700 species of bacteria. That bacterial flora most certainly performs a biological role in newborns, concluded a report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Modern science is rediscovering what we learned centuries ago: exposure to organisms in everyday life can be beneficial for us. In 1796, Edward Jenner, an English physician, used folk knowledge and science to confirm positive interactions between the environment and human immune function. In his research, Jenner confirmed that dairymaids who milked cows afflicted with cowpox also developed immunity to the dreaded smallpox virus.

We are still learning about the breadth of interactions that improve human immune function as we grow and develop. However, it appears some of them can only occur if we don't place our children in aseptic bubbles devoid of a little bit of dirt and beneficial microbes.

This editorial appears on page 126 of the February 25, 2013 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.