It’s been a few days since I made the open call for guest posts and I’ve already heard from some like-minded science communicators…
I have a feeling the coming year will be highlighted with some incredible articles sharing some of the most interesting – and of course, amusing – science out there.
For the first guest post, let me introduce you to…
For you Bones, fans, Ben might make you think of Dr. Jack Hodgins, better known as…
Ben might not be a king but he is a microbiologist at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. He also has a passion for science communication. He’s written for some of the highest rated publications including, Nature.
You learn more about Ben at his website: http://www.benlibberton.com/.
When we talked about a guest piece, Ben had a fascinating story from his lab involving helping doctors get a better handle on bacterial infections. It also is rather timely in light of a new movie that happened to come out last week. I won’t give it away but I will suggest you think about this as you read it…
And now…here’s Ben Libberton’s guest post…and remember, if you like it, please let him know with a nice comment below.
How can we deactivate the shield generator if we can’t see it?
It’s the story of almost every movie set in space. A plucky band of misfits converges on the giant enemy spaceship. Against all the odds, they pull together and gain a chance of winning the battle. The Captain gives the order to open fire and the first laser cannon discharges its payload. We watch as the laser beam approaches the enemy spaceship. As it gets closer and closer we hold our breath, waiting for an epic explosion.
If you’ve ever seen this type of film, you know what is about to happen. Just before reaching the enemy spaceship, the laser hits an invisible barrier. At the moment of impact, we see that the enemy is actually completely surrounded by a powerful and invisible shield. At this point, someone in the crew yells, “Retreat” or, “It’s a trap!” The once optimistic comrades scatter to avoid total annihilation.
While this scenario is a staple for science fiction, there is a realistic counterpart although instead of a telescope, you need a microscope to see it. It happens when doctors try to kill certain types of bacteria with antibiotics. Officially, this is known as biofilm-mediated antibiotic resistance but it can be best described as humanity’s worst health nightmare.
When bacteria, such as the foodborne pathogen, Salmonella attach to a surface like a piece of food or a catheter, they start to grow and clump together. Once they have reached a large enough number, they begin building a defensive barrier that will protect them from all kinds of external threats. This structure is called a biofilm.
Researchers have long been able to see the bacteria cells within a biofilm, much like our brave fleet can see the enemy spaceship, however, they find it much more difficult to see the bacterial defenses. It’s officially called an extracellular matrix and it’s made of a sticky, jelly-like substance that coats and surrounds each bacterial cell like a slimy coat of armor. This is a serious problem that can extend a person’s fight with the pathogen and could possibly kill them. .
Fortunately, a team of researchers from Karolinksa Institutet in Stockholm have synthesized a new chemical compound that lights up these bacterial defenses. It’s a molecular beacon that can tell scientists exactly what type of biofilm they are dealing with. More importantly, it can help researchers learn how these defenses are made and more importantly, how they can be destroyed.
Imagine before you go into an epic space battle you already know if the enemy had a shield or not. That would be incredibly useful information to have, right? You would know that you had to deactivate the shield before you could attack. Your chances at winning would increase dramatically.
It’s the same with bacteria and antibiotics. If you could see what defenses are present before you write a prescription, you gain the upper hand. You can use appropriate options and reduce the chances for an elongated battle.
The team has recently published this work and you can read all about it here: “Real-time opto-tracing of curli and cellulose into live Salmonella biofilms using luminescent oligothiophenes.”
As for those science-fiction-turned-real battles with biofilms, The researchers from Karolinska foresee that this molecular probe will be used to help other scientists study the bacterial defenses in more detail. The goal will be to find weak points in the shield and then find ways to cause a cascade of biofilm catastrophe. This would eventually turn into a treatment to go along with antibiotics.
For now, however, this technique is destined to be put into hospitals as a way to diagnose more serious infections. While we are not there quite yet, doctors will soon learn the nature of their microbial enemies and gain that winning edge to ride infections and more importantly, save lives.