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The Germ Guy: Confessions of a Mercurial Microbiologist

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Jason "Germ Guy" Tetro

Am I Checking Into A Hotel Horror?

If you travel as much as I do, that moment when you open a hotel room door and drag yourself inside can bring about that feeling of…

relax(Ahhh….)

The journey is over as are the various stresses that come with going from one place to another. You can take a nice, deep breath, turn on the TV, and maybe take a nice hot shower or bath.

But, thanks to a recent article from the website Travelmath.com, you might want to forego all of those activities unless of course, you’re wearing this….

hazmat(Could this look more ominous?)

The site wanted to look at the microbial contamination of hotel rooms and reached out to a testing laboratory to help them find out. A variety of objects were swabbed, such as the remote, the bathroom counter, the desk, and the phone. The swabs were cultured for microbial number and type. Basically it was…

cup(Standard Microbiology…)

The group examined several hotels ranging from three-star to five-star ratings hoping to find differences between the different scales of comfort. When it was all said and done, they reported the results as follows…

(You can see where this is going…)

Not surprisingly, hotel rooms were covered in germs. In some instances, over 1 million were collected per square inch (for you metric folks, that’s about 180,000 per square centimetre). The worst was the bathroom counter but it was closely followed by something almost everyone uses…

remote(The remote control…)

But this wasn’t the biggest shock. That came when the levels of microbes were compared between the different ratings. The cleanest remotes happened to be in three-star hotels. The five-star had well over 2 million bacteria…

jerry
(Yeah, I know…)

Similar differences were seen for other surfaces as well. All things being considered, the numbers suggest a three-star hotel would be better for your health as well as your wallet.

Yet this wasn’t the whole story. When the microbial types were analyzed, the three-star rooms appeared to have more diversity among the lower numbers. As for the five-star, only a few types were isolated but in very high concentrations.

I know what you’re thinking…

farquaad(Or some other reasonable facsimile…)

The answer most likely lies in the difference between the way three-star and five-star hotels are maintained. The lower ratings are usually capable of having fresh air through windows while many five-star hotels only use recirculated air. This would account for the difference in both diversity (open windows) and numbers (higher concentrations in ventilation).

It may seem like a no-win situation leaving anyone checking into a hotel facing what could best be described as a…

crap-shoot(Health crap shoot…)

But don’t start counting your unlucky rolls just yet. While the information does seem to suggest there may be a risk for infection, there was one small, tiny piece of data missing from the study…

scream(ARE THEY INFECTIOUS?)

That question was never answered. However, many of the types mentioned were environmental in nature and thus harmless. Most appeared to be good old-fashioned human bacteria, which pose little threat to others. Any apparent risk was low at best.

There was one saving grace to this article. The site did recommend people wash their hands often and also bring along disinfectant wipes. Both of these suggestions are excellent and should be a part of anyone’s travel activities. I always have wipes, sanitizer, and of course my scarf because…

mask-scarf(It’s fashionable and gets no extra attention at airport security!)

If you happen to be travelling, you might want to make these items a part of your everyday necessities. If you happen to be spending some time waiting, you may also want to have this…

germ-files(You never know when you’ll run into me and I always have my pen)

If you want to read the entire article on hotel germs, you can find it here: What are the germiest surfaces in hotel rooms?

Make Armpits Smell Great Again!

Officially, that crevice between your arms and your torso is known as the axillary region. But to most people, it’s simply known as…

Smell central…

If you have read The Germ Files, you know armpit aroma is caused by the various different types of microbes living on your skin. Depending on the species calling this area home, the scent may be mildly unpleasant to well…

stink2(You get the idea…)

Figuring out how to prevent those egregious emanations can be a challenge. Washing is obviously going to help although the effects may only last a few hours. Deodorants and antiperspirants offer some comfort yet they can falter over time and may end up making the situation worse.

But there may be hope for a sweet-smelling future thanks to a rather odd-sounding technique called…

drarmpit(Microbial Axillary Transplantation)

The concept comes from a researcher named Dr. Chris Callewaert, who is better known as Dr. Armpit (thus the name on the white coat above). Since 2013, he has performed close to 20 such transplants and has had great results in helping people deal with the caustic condition.

The technique is rather simple. Microbes are taken from a person who isn’t guilty of olfactory offenses, and placed into the armpit of another. The bacteria can then annex the axillary and reduce or even remove the fetid fragrance.

At the moment, Dr. Armpit seems to be the only person conducting this type of microbial ministration. But once he publishes his transplant technique in a scientific journal, the practice is sure to spread like…

leonard(Sweat on a stylish shirt…)

After all, we all know the importance of body odour. In our society, having an appropriate scent is both a social and a professional necessity. Not to mention, for those who are commuting to and from work or school…

armpit-worry(It’s common courtesy…)

To learn more about Dr. Armpit and the work he does, you can head over to his website: drarmpit.com. If you wish to get into detail on the procedure, you can read a rather thorough thesis on the topic here: Combatting body odor by the means of microbial transplantations.

 

 

 

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0070538

 

A GIF is worth 5,000 words

I love research papers. But I understand not everyone shares my fascination with the academic form of writing. Some people have told me when they are asked to read a scientific article, they wish they had this…

nope(We could all use the NOPE button)

I hear you. I know it may not be fun reading thousands of words, many of which are acronyms or jargon. Then you have to deal with those tables that seem to go on forever and graphs that look like they were made using…

excel(You get the idea)

Worst of all are methods sections, which are incredibly complex and usually so out of touch with the rest of the world, they are simply skipped. For those who do read them, sometimes they come across the phrase, “as described previously.”  This one line means they have to go back to the cited reference and try to find the protocol in another paper, which, by the way, may also have that same line in the methods…

stress(My reaction when that happens…)

But every now and then, an article comes around that breaks the mold. A few years ago, one such paper was published in the Journal of Immunology. It’s a thorough examination of how certain immune cells target and kill other cells. You can find it and read it here:
Rapid and Unidirectional Perforin Pore Delivery at the Cytotoxic Immune Synapse

But a little advanced warning. The article itself is quite long…about 5,000 words in total. To put that into perspective, my latest book comprised of about…

TGF v5(80,000 words)

As you can imagine, the paper is quite a bit for anyone to take in and I’m sure it doesn’t make as nice a Christmas gift as say, a nice, fresh paperback…

just_sayin(Too obvious?)

All plugs aside, the article does provide an excellent look at how the immune system combats cancer cells in the body. However, because of the length and the content, most people might never know the wonders of immunity in keeping us healthy.

But the authors found a way around this hurdle. Rather than accept the article was doomed to stay on a website unread, they decided to give readers something a little more interesting. They added a video, which has been turned into…

t-cell-killing(A GIF)

Without reading a single word from the paper, you can understand what is going on. It’s incredibly simple and requires no lengthy explanation. Granted, the process happening at the molecular level is quite complex but unless you happen to be an immunologist, the details may not be all that informative.

This example of visualizing research is still considered to be rare among scientific publications, but thanks to the beauty of imagery equipment, we should be seeing far more of these displays in the future. The end result may not be as captivating as this GIF, but I truly believe this path will help inform people in a meaningful way and also, spread the good word of science.

Now if only they could show this with a 360 degree camera…I would love to see this in VR.

Smell Like You’re Still On Vacation…

This week, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend one of the top notch conferences held in the United States every year…

sfn2(hosted by the Society for Neuroscience)

It was quite the experience as over 30,000 converged to discuss all aspects of neurology. As you might expect, I was thrilled to see dozens of posters and talks on the effects of microbiology and immunology on neurological function. I had a blast talking with various researchers on their topics and learned just how much these fields are coming together…

campfire
(Kumbaya!)

The best part about going to the conference was the time spent…5 days. This meant it allowed me the opportunity to perform one of my favorite experiments. It like to call it…

smell-testHow Did I Smell On Vacation?!

I’ve been trying this on and off for the last 15 years. The first time was when I was in the jungles of the Amazon. While many of you might remember I brought up this trip in…

germcode(Makes for a great Christmas gift!)

When I returned to civilization, it occurred to me I hadn’t quite left the forest behind. For the next day, I had this wild and exotic smell all over me. When I asked the residents what that aroma happened to be, they simply called it…

jungle-funk(Very appropriate…)

By the time the second day came around, the difference between the city smell and my smell was a little to much and I sought solace in the shower.

Ever since then, whenever I have a trip longer than 3 days, I like to perform this experiment to see just what it was like to be covered in the microbes of that particular area. I bring up how microbes contribute to our smell in…

germ-files(The British cover…perfect for under the Christmas tree)

I’ve found it takes about that long to have enough microbial shift to make a difference in the way I smell. Mind you, the scent is stronger after five days and really sets in after ten.

So, before I tell you what it was like to be in San Diego, I’ll provide you with my protocol to achieve the best results. Thankfully, no pipettes or electron microscopes required.

  • Step 1. Visit a different ecosystem for at least three days
  • Step 2. Make sure you get a good ‘dose’ of the air, water, and land just before you leave
  • Step 3: Upon getting home, change BUT don’t shower or take a bath
  • Step 4: Go to sleep for the night (jet lag and all)
  • Step 5: Wake up in the morning and take a deep breath of the outside air
  • Step 6: Find a quiet corner and start sniffing yourself.

You should find your scent will be different than what you might be used to at home. Having been to a variety of different areas of the world, I’ve found some confer a salty/sweet smell – like Costa Rica, others are a bit more dense and acrid, like New Orleans, and a few are so complex – like the jungle – they need to be experienced to be believed.

As for San Diego, you might think the smell might be…

chargers(Electric!)

In reality, it was more eclectic. My skin emanated with a plume of pungent, astringent, and sharp aromas. I felt as if I had been close to an oil field rather than a beachfront. The odour was also rather unpleasant compared to that Toronto smell. I’m not suggesting it was worse, but the clash was a little too much for my olfactory system…

shower-time(Shower time!)

If you want to take this to a whole new level, you could culture the bacteria on the skin in the hopes of identifying the species and their byproducts leading to those aromatic emanations. I admit, in other times, I may have been tempted to do the same. But sadly, I am suffering from a serious case of…

jetlag(Jet lag)

So, I’m going to be happy knowing my experiment was once again a success and look forward to smelling once again like a Torontonian after a good night’s sleep.

Cortisol And Cytokines Amid The Confusion…

It’s November 9th and the world seems very different.

Last night’s election outcome was in a word…shocking. Almost no one expected to utter the words…

President Trump

Yet, come January 20th of next year, that will become the new reality.

In light of the remarkable result, many have expressed emotions of anxiety, stress, and concern in the various forms of social and traditional media. This is to be expected, particularly in those who had believed their candidate was a sure winner.

At the molecular level, everyone suffering this morning is going through a biochemical process involving a variety of different molecules ranging from cortisol – the stress hormone – to inflammatory cytokines – which are responsible for fighting infection.

The pathways of stress are incredibly complex but can be visualized…

stressIn a very simplified manner…

As you might expect, there is no easy way to deal with all the different factors going on inside the body. However, there are options to help control some of the troubles.

The most important is to maintain a balanced diet. While we may think stress is best resolved by ingesting alcohol, fatty foods and of course…

icecream
Ice Cream…

These options may not be the best over the long term. Instead, try to eat a more Mediterranean Diet. The foods are known to help balance the immune system and help to reduce the cortisol spikes. They are also enjoyed by those friendly bacteria in your gut.

If you’re not familiar with the Mediterranean Diet, this is what it entails…

med-diet(Don’t forget the exercise!)

I would also suggest thinking of fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and my new favorite…

skyr(HOOH!)

These foods will have various byproducts known to help calm the immune system and reduce those inflammatory cytokines. If you wish to supplement them with probiotics, that’s cool too.

It’s going to be a while before the reaction to last night finally wears off and people return to a new state of normal. For some, the stress may last for years without ablation. There’s little we can do now to change the events happening in the outside world. But hopefully, people can keep their inside realms a little more balanced so they can deal with the coming four to eight years.

 

Is My Car Out To Kill Me?

Anyone who has a car knows how valuable it can be in getting around. But this great modern invention does come with some drawbacks. It’s been considered a major source of pollution and contributes to global warming.

Thankfully there’s a solution for that…

green-carGreen Cars!

Then there are the issues with having to deal with other drivers. Although most of the time people are reasonably safe, there are moments when you realize the roads can be rather stressful…

cutmeoff(If you don’t get this, Google “Gotye”)

Most of the time, the downsides are not due to the car itself but rather the use of the vehicle. Then, out of nowhere, a report came out last week suggesting the lowly automobile is….

sickcarAn automaton of health woes!

The story was covered by several media organizations but the most amusing came from the Daily Mail. You can read it here: Is YOUR car a health hazard? Study reveals vehicle interiors are 2,144% filthier than smartphones.

As the title of the story implies, the car is a haven for microbes and may be a source of infection. But if you read further, there is an even greater consequence. If you don’t do something about those germs, your car may depreciate faster as a result of odours and rust accumulation.

When I read this, my immediate reaction was….

jon-stewart-confused-what(this speaks for itself)

It turns out the study was sponsored by a company called SellCar.co.uk, which as you might expect, is devoted to the car trade business. For them, the latter risks appeared to be more important than health.

That being said, the implication of the car as a bastion of bacterial badness can leave people wondering whether their cars can indeed make them sick. Unfortunately, the Daily Mail article as well as others don’t address this issue.

Thankfully, there was one person who was up to the task of answering this question once and for all…

joelatimer(Dr. Joe Latimer from the University of Salford)

Dr. Latimer was the scientist behind the study and was happy to share some valuable information about the study and the results.

The first interesting tidbit was that 2144% number used in the title of the Daily Mail article. The number was not an exaggeration. Certain areas of the car did have that many more bacteria than smartphones. However, when it comes to the actual numbers isolated, the picture becomes a little less worrisome.

In a square centimetre (that’s about 0.15 square inches), smartphones had on average 1.4 bacterial colonies. Now multiply that by 2144% and you get the whopping total of…

31(Yup, that’s it.)

Now, just to put this into perspective, compare that number to say, a dishcloth, which has about 120,000 colonies. As for your gut, there are about 33 million colonies in that same area.

If you’re wondering what the total concentration of microbes in the car might be, a simple calculation can help. The entire surface area of the interior is about 20 metres squared. If you had the same number found in this study, you’d get to a total of about 6 million bacterial colonies.

This may seem like quite a bit, yet remember, each and every hour, you are shedding about 1 million bacteria as part of your microbial cloud. You’ll shed even more – up to 37 million – if you happen to be…

cardancing(Car dancing!)

If you happen to be worried about whether any of those 31 found were pathogens, despite all the efforts made to identify potential infection-causing bacteria, the search came up empty. The bacteria were part of the normal human microflora and definitely would not cause you – or your car for that matter – harm.

Obviously, the study commissioned by SellCar.co.uk made for a great headline and it gained quite a bit of interest. However, in terms of the actual risk to your health, the conclusion is rather clear…

jedi(No Jedi mind trick required…)

There is, however, one very important exception. One car – and only one – truly has your worst interest in mind. If you happen to come across this vehicle, be sure to get away as fast as you can. If you don’t it could be the end. This car is…

christine(You had to know I would go there…)

A Pressing Perspective on Produce Preservation…

In the Northern Hemisphere, the harvest season has come to a close and many parts of the world are awaiting the arrival of the inevitable…

winter(Winter Season)

This time also marks the end of the weekly rush to the farmer’s market to pick up the freshest food choices such as fruits and vegetables. But rather than head over to the grocery store to find imported options, many choose to go a different route to keep the freshness alive…

fermentation(Fermentation) 

This long-standing tradition of preservation is growing in popularity and many are looking towards this ancient technique to maintain a healthy diet over the cold winter months.

For the most part, fermentation is a simple process. All you really need to do is…

  1. Put the fresh items in a jar;
  2. Add salt and water;
  3. Wait.

There is only one necessity. The food has to remain submerged underwater for the entire time. If any of those cabbage shreds, pickles, or other raw items are exposed to air, it can get ugly fast thanks to…

mold-on-sauerkraut11(Fungus)

Contamination is one of the most common reasons batches are ruined. Unfortunately, many of the raw items used happen to be buoyant.

For fermentation experts, this dilemma is easily avoided using weights. Some people like to use rocks, others will use specialized ceramic discs, and then there are those who are somewhat inventive…

plate-fermentatin(I have no idea…)

One of the more interesting ideas came up a few weeks ago. It’s called a Perfect*Pusher and it looks something like this…

pickle-pusher(Looks fairly straightforward)

Basically, the pieces are put together and then pressed into the jar. Once that is complete, a suction is put into place such that the solids remain under water.

If that system sounds familiar, it’s because the mechanism is similar to one many of us coffee drinkers rely on every single day…

howtofrenchpress

(The French Press)

If you ask me, it’s kind of brilliant. Using physics to keep your food safe. Not to mention, it makes it easy to handle and store the jars without having to worry about the weight falling and breaking your toe…

crying(Not that I’m talking from experience…)

The coolest part about the Pickle*Pusher is the actual inventor of the product. It’s a duo of fermenting aficionados…

pickle-jar(Mike and Sheila)

They have been pickling probably for longer than I have been alive, which makes them the perfect people to trust when it comes to new fermenting ideas. Much like those old scientists in the lab who seem to know everything, Mike and Sheila probably know more about fermenting than most people do about life itself.

and-thats-a-good-thing(Indeed it is…)

At the moment, the two are trying to sell the Pickle*Pusher to a wider audience. They are doing this through a Kickstarter campaign. They are hoping for a small amount, only $4,000 to keep production going. You can find the information here: “Pickle*Pusher Small Batch Home Fermenting System”

If you happen to be fermenting or are thinking of experimenting, you might want to give Mike and Sheila’s site a look. I actually discovered this quite late into the campaign so there are only a few more days left.

 

 

Are VR Headsets Going to Give Me Herpes?

Herpes.

The mere sound of the word is…

maxresdefault(Awful…)

The virus that causes this disease is officially known as Herpes Simplex Virus or HSV. It gets its name from the Greek word meaning “to creep or crawl.” As anyone who has studied the virus can tell you, the name is fitting.

The virus likes to get into our skin and then cause a series of extremely painful blisters. To save you the shock of seeing the results of an unfiltered Google Image Search, here is a family-friendly example…

herpes(They feel worse than they look)

These blisters last for a few weeks and then go away. However, this isn’t the end of the infection. In fact, it’s only the beginning.

Herpes doesn’t just infect us and then go away like most viruses. It stays with us in a dormant state until one day it decides to wake up and cause those blisters all over again. For anyone who suffers from this disease, it’s like being trapped in a never-ending cycle of recurring pain.

Most herpes infections are limited to a few areas of the body including the genitals – thus the earlier warning of doing that image search – and the lips, which are better known as…

cold-sore(Cold sores)

But there is another place on the body where herpes has been found time and again. Again, to prevent that whole Google Image Search shock to a minimum, here’s a family friendly image describing where the virus attacks…

dendrite-1(The eye…) 

I know…I know…

what(It’s a natural response…)

Ocular herpes may sound horrific because it is. Not only does the virus do damage to the eye, it can also lead to several other problems including glaucoma and blindness. It’s relatively hard to treat and at the moment, there is no vaccine to prevent it.

In the United States alone, this infection affects tens of thousands of people each year. Some two-thirds of people will also have recurrences throughout their lifespan. The rates don’t seem to be declining either…

badsign(It’s actually rather worrisome)

Thankfully, the virus is one of the easiest to kill. Good hygiene practices such as washing hands before touching the eyes is the best way to keep the virus from causing a potentially life-long nightmare.

But hands may not be the only route of transmission. Last week, a new suspect was put into the spotlight…

vr-headset(The Virtual Reality Headset)

Apparently, people were catching this virus at trade shows and demo booths. The headsets were being passed from person to person without being cleaned in between. This sparked a major concern in the gaming community and eventually was picked up by the website Game Rant. You can read the entire article here: VR Headset Blamed for Ocular Herpes Outbreak

Although the actual route of transmission wasn’t discussed, you can imagine how this happened. An individual suffering from herpes infection handled the device, contaminating the headset and turning it into a carrier. Any subsequent use then led to a risk for infection.

Talk about making something literally, “go viral.”

startrek
(I had to…)

Before you decide never to use a VR headset, I should point out the Game Rant article was clear to state this outbreak was based on personal experience and not a scientific study. Yet, even without the involvement of the CDC or other public health authorities, the news does offer some perspective on the need for hygiene everywhere.

Should you decide to try out virtual reality at a show, demo, or other event, make sure it is clean before you use it. This is as easy as using a disinfectant wipe and waiting a minute before using the device. This will kill most pathogens, including herpes, making it safe for use. That way, you can be sure you will enjoy the virtual world without fear of dealing with a real-world viral problem.

If you want to learn more about ocular herpes, there is a great article reviewing the infection. You can find it here: Ocular herpes simplex: changing epidemiology, emerging disease patterns, and the potential of vaccine prevention and therapy.

A “Smashing” Antibiotic Resistance Story…

Sometimes, a story appears on my feed and the first thing I want to do is…

smash(Let’s call it…SMASH!)

This morning, that emotion bubbled to the surface when I read a recent story about an Indian drug industry lobby group’s response to a massive problem.

In the middle of the country, near the city of Hyderabad…

patancheru(To get you oriented)

There is Kazipally Lake. It’s a small lake – some call it a pond – but it has made big news over the last few years. It’s because this one site has become the “poster child” for the uncontrolled spread of antibiotic resistance. As one cartoon depicts it…

pharma-to-farma(Drugs For All, Sustainability For None) 

As you might expect, there is a pharmaceutical plant in the area. It’s called Aurobindo Pharma. It produces a number of different types of drugs, including antibiotics. While the output of this plant is beneficial for all through a generous supply of pills, the waste ends up here…

discharge(Not pretty, is it?)

As you might expect, much of this runoff contains residuals of antibiotics. These then flow into Kazipally Lake where they encounter the microbial population living in the water. As we all know by now, when this happens, antibiotic resistance is bound to occur. As to how much, let’s compare with other bodies of water…

lakes-compare(Take a guess which one is Kazipally?)

Several other studies have confirmed this lake is a haven for antibiotic resistance genes. If you want to check them out, just hit up Google Scholar and type in: “Kazipally.” Or just click the link that already does it for you: Google Scholar Results For Kazapally

At this point of the story, you might already be wondering what is wrong with these people. I have for years. But now comes the part of the story that will simply make you…

hulk-angry(Don’t SMASH yet…)

The Pharmaceutical Export Promotion Council, also known as Pharmexil, released a statement saying there is no impact from pharmaceutical production. It went on to suggest any regulations to slow down the dumping of antibiotics would lead to economic disaster and hurt exports of drugs.

In other words, they were saying…

innocent(It gets worse…)

It’s not that they don’t believe there is antibiotic resistance. Pharmexil admits antibiotic resistance is indeed a problem. Yet, despite agreeing to this reality, they have no intention to make any changes. Without government regulation – which no doubt they will oppose – nothing will get done.

Now you are where I was when I read the article, which is pretty much here…

hulk-smash(Just not my computer…)

This tale, while incredibly frustrating, nicely sums up the troubles we all face when it comes to actually doing something about resistance. We can reduce the number of prescriptions, we can adhere to antibiotic abstinence in agriculture, and we can talk about how we can all do more to stop the antibiotic era.

But what we cannot do is stop the production of these drugs. They are necessary…at least for now. Without proper government regulations to keep manufacturers in check, stories like Kazipally will inevitably put all of our futures at risk.

Trying to get authorities to do something about it, however, well, that’s another kind of smashing…

earth-wall(Fitting isn’t it?)

If you still want to read the story, you can find it here:  India drug industry lobby hits back at antibiotic pollution claims

 

 

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