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The Germ Guy: Confessions of a Mercurial Microbiologist

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Jason "Germ Guy" Tetro

Has Zika Finally Found A Home In America?

This morning, Governor Rick Scott of Florida held a press conference to discuss the possibility of local Zika virus spread in a small area of the state – the ZIP code 33127.

072916-local-zika-map

The Zika-affected area

Although only four people have been affected, the news has sent shock waves through America. The state has also invoked a number of mandates to respond to the cases They include mandatory urine testing and the refusal of blood donors for those in the affected area.

For researchers including myself, this event has been expected for some time. To be honest, I’ve wondered why it has taken this long for the virus to make it to America. Based on what was seen in South America, Zika should have spread like wildfire.

But what is truly odd is the lack of any detection of Zika-positive mosquitoes. This means the virus may be in the area, yet has not reached a level capable of sustained transmission. This is the perfect opportunity for the state to do everything it can to prevent a rise in cases. But to ensure this happens, they have to first find out how these four people were infected.

No doubt, hypotheses about the mode of infection are going to be offered. I can already think of three based on the small amount of information shared.

  1. Bystander effect – a Zika-infected person was bitten and then the mosquito bit another uninfected person within the insect’s lifespan.
  2. Pocket spread – the Zika virus is in a small, as-of-yet undiscovered part of the ZIP code and only affecting people there.
  3. Inaccurate medical history – this is of course the least likely option but always needs to be considered as the individuals may not wish to share their private activities

Whatever the case may be – I’m figuring Option #1 is the most likely explanation – the reality is America now has to face an issue they have been trying to keep on the back burner. Granted, this is only a report of four cases. But that can quickly rise if the presence of the virus in the mosquito population rises.

You can read more about the cases here:
http://www.floridahealth.gov/newsroom/2016/07/072916-local-zika.html

 

Mathematics and the Zombie Apocalypse

When it comes to cultural curiosities, few compare to the popularity of zombies. These undead creatures, born out of Haitian mysticism, have become a worldwide phenomenon. Around the world, cities host thousands of people for zombie walks to celebrate these rather grotesque creatures with a hunger for brains. Books and movies have been made about them and a few years back, the CDC developed a zombie preparedness plan for the so-called “zombie apocalypse”.

banner-zombie

(granted it was tongue-in-cheek)

But while zombie-based research may seem to fall in the realms of microbiology (zombie virus), physics (zombie radiation), or survivalism, the one area gaining the most ground is epidemiology, better known as the study of disease spread.

The tools of this branch of science are mainly mathematical and have helped to understand how a variety of infections can spread. But when it comes to total annihilation, nothing beats the zombie apocalypse as a model. This fictitious event can provide the perfect base for complex equations to determine how a pathogen might spread. To wit, scientific articles and even academic books have been written on the subject.

But now it seems zombies may be used as a learning tool for mathematics. In a recent study, a group of researchers make the case for using popular culture as a base for scientific learning. They expressed their views in a paper, which you can read here:

Equations of the End: Teaching Mathematical Modeling Using the Zombie Apocalypse

As the authors state in the conclusion, the approach:

“brings the teaching of infectious disease modeling into line with how biology, epidemiology, and public health are often taught, with subject-matter expertise being acquired after, or alongside, general methodological sophistication, rather than acting as an impediment to it.”

Granted, that’s a pretty long sentence to justify their perspective. Yet, the gist is pretty common to anyone performing science communication. If you want to make a rather dry subject seem interesting, throw in some pop culture.

The beautiful part about this direction is the ability to make up the details as you go along. Unlike some of those pandemic movies, which are usually subject to much scientific criticising, being accurate to the specifics isn’t needed; zombies are fiction.

So, if you want to have some fun learning about how it might end, take a look at the paper and keep your eyes out for courses. Much like zombie-based activities, I’m sure the learning opportunities will be popping up everywhere fairly soon.

Beating Bed Bugs With Their Own Scent

Hopefully you have never had to suffer from a bed bug infestation. But if you have, you know they tend to gather in a single place like this…

 

In the nest, you’ll find adults, babies – known as nymphs – and also the shed exoskeletons of growing insects. It may seem odd that these apparently useless entities would also be here but it seems they play an important role in helping bugs locate their home.

It’s all due to chemicals known as pheromones, which are contained within these lifeless shells. They attract the bugs letting them know where home happens to be.

Now a group of researchers have identified which pheromones attract the insects opening the door to a more effective trap.

I wrote about the study and what this could mean in the future in my Popular Science column, which I titled, A Sweet (Smelling) Bed Bug Control Option

Hope you enjoy it. Feel free to send me your thoughts below.

When Patient Safety Is Compromised…

I’ve been involved in infection prevention and control for over a decade and have worked hard to ensure patient safety. Anyone who has met me knows how passionate I am about keeping infectious diseases away from those who are vulnerable.

But sometimes, infections happen and we simply don’t know why. Here’s one very frustrating example of the truth coming out far too late.

Olympus Corp issued no broad warnings about scope infection risk in America in 2013 or two years afterward despite doing so in Europe.

Source: 35 deaths linked to scope infections after Olympus told execs not to warn hospitals

 

Putting Perspective On Personal Fermentation

Hey everyone,

First off, it’s been an incredible few months since the release of The Germ Files. I’ve been touring all over Ontario and have been thrilled to meet hundreds of people all interested in our daily relationship with microbes. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to see a very kind review in the Washington Post.

Washington-Post

You can read the entire piece here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/why-we-should-love-germs/2016/02/29/f2c3b662-db27-11e5-891a-4ed04f4213e8_story.html

Over the course of the tour, one section seemed to gain interest with some of the audience members. It had to do with making fermented foods from microbes isolated from human fecal matter. The idea of finding new bacteria in the gut did have an expected effect…

 

monkees-nope(if you don’t know who these gents are, ask your grandparents)

But those feelings passed once I explained the lengthy process of isolating, purifying, and then testing a particular species. By the time fermentation happened, the bacterium had no direct links to the source an definitely would not have any related tastes. This practice is normal for any company wishing to use ‘human strains’ for their fermented foods and of course, probiotics.

However as in life there are always exceptions and just this past week, one seemingly has appeared.

bottled-instinctThe Order of Yoni Beer by Bottled Instinct

It’s well known beer is usually fermented with yeast. However, there are certain styles, such as the one pictured above, made with what is known as a sour mash. It’s particularly popular with home brewers though there are some larger companies using this technique to make a variety of choices. It’s also used to make certain American Whiskeys.

The key to a sour mash is the formation of lactic acid. To accomplish this, several species of bacteria have been used throughout the ages. One happens to be Lactobacillus acidophilus. The name may sound familiar because it is also a probiotic and as many on the tour have learned, is my favorite microbe.

jason-acidophilusMe and my L. acidophilus

The bacterium can also be found in a few places within the human body. The first is the same as I mentioned above. The company didn’t look there.

For those fluent in Hindi, the name of the beer, The Order of Yoni, gives away the other location. If you’re not up to speed on the Indian language, the word Yoni literally means the womb.

From a scientific perspective, the idea isn’t all that odd. After all, a sour mash made from isolates of Lactobacillus acidophilus acquired from a human female’s genitourinary microbiome may not seem all that bad. It might make for an interesting science or art project. After all, there have been such endeavours conducted in the past albeit not with this particular region of the body.

However, the company selling the product doesn’t quite explain it in the same way. Here’s a quote from their site:

“Using hi-tech of microbiology, we isolate, examine and prepare lactic acid bacteria from a unique woman. The bacteria, lactobacillus, transfer woman’s features, allure, grace, glamour, and her instincts into beers and other products, turning them into dance with lovely goddess.”

Needless to say…

carrie-wth(If you don’t know who this is, ask your parents)

As you might expect from the description and the model, this venture is all about trying to bottle the essence of beauty and provide it in a relatively easy to digest format. The company goes even further to name the person from whom the sample will be taken…a model named Alexandra Brendlova. If you don’t know who she is, here’s a promotional photo.

yoni-model

While this may be enough to convince people to give this a try, from a scientific perspective, the only place you’re going to feel anything is your wallet.

If you go deeper into the site, the company explains the process of isolating this unique Lactobacillus acidophilus for brewing. It’s no different than trying to isolate a bacterium from that other region. The samples are cultured, and the bacteria are isolated, and then grown until they reach the right levels to be used in the first stages of fermentation. This ensures safety but also takes away any links the species may have had to the owner.

There is one bright side to this venture. This concept shows just how popular microbes have become over the last decade. It really makes me wanna…

5sos(If you don’t know who these guys are, ask your kids)

While this particular product may not provide anything more than an intriguing sour mash beer, the interest from the media and those actually investing in the company reveals this may be the beginning of mainstream human microbial artisanal gastronomy.

If you are interested in going this route, I’d love to hear about it. Just be sure not to overstate the benefits. Though bacteria may come from a specific individual or type of person, don’t expect to transfer their outwardly qualities. A person may gain health benefits and perhaps help to change several biological parameters. But in terms of features, allure, grace, and glamour, no amount of Lactobacillus or any other microbe for that matter is going to help.

If this was the case, fecal transplantation would be a far more common practice.

 

 

Would love to hear your thoughts…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#TheGermFiles – Must Watch TV

Hey everyone,

Before I get to the videos, I just want to share this image I received on Saturday with you. While it doesn’t seem like much, it is for me a moment to truly enjoy.

bestseller

This is the Canadian Non-Fiction Bestseller list from last week and as you can see at #7, The Germ Files had an amazing debut. Considering the topic is about a subject generally considered nothing more than a niche of the sciences, I couldn’t be happier!

Okay, moving on…

I know I’ve been posting videos regarding #TheGermFiles on various social media platforms but thought I would try to compile them in one spot.

It first started with a promo for the book. I made this a few months ago with my friends, Sean Webb and Jay Trout. Fantastic gents with some amazing skills…

When the book came out, I was fortunate to appear on several television broadcasts. I had a wonderful time with Canada AM talking about good germs…

canada-am

CANADA AM

Then it was off to The Social, where I had an absolutely hilarious time with the hosts and the audience. Not only did we have some laughs, there was also some good information shared!

thesocial

THE SOCIAL

Then there was The Agenda. I really had a great time talking with Piya Chattopadhyay who really took it down to the most basic levels of why germs matter to us.

jason-agendaTHE AGENDA

I have to honestly give a HUGE thank you to Sharon Klein at Penguin Random House. She has been my biggest supporter and done all the work to get me on the radar of these shows long before I was in the studio. It meant I was given the rare opportunity of simply having to show up, enjoy the makeup brush, and then have a lovely chat with the host(s).

I hope you enjoy these segments and as always, if you have any questions, comments, or thoughts, let me know in the comments.

Antibiotic Resistance and Rethinking The Name “Superbug”

As some of you may know, every month, I have the honour of being a guest on the Ward and Al Show on SiriusXM Canada Talks (Channel 167). For the hour, I get to talk about the wonderful world of science with the hosts…

wardal-siriusxm-slogan

Ward Anderson and Alison Dore

I adore them because they have an incredible interest in science but more importantly, how to make the strange world of the lab come alive in the public realm.

We normally talk about headlines of the day and sure enough, last Monday, the topic turned to antibiotic resistance. It’s been featured quite often over the last few weeks as a crisis looms over our ability to fight infectious disease.  We may even enter what is known as…

postantibioticera

The Post-Antibiotic Era.

Almost sounds like something from a comic book, doesn’t it?  Well, when the subject turned to what exactly antibiotic resistance looks like, there was no better place to turn than the comic book world.  Or, in this case, movie trailer.

Last week, the new Batman vs Superman trailer was unveiled and it is quite the experience. But there’s an interesting scene contained within the three minutes that has many a fan talking. Head to about 2:20 and watch for the next twenty seconds.

The monster is known as Doomsday and has the potential to wipe out an entire city block with one burst of incredible molecular energy.  As you can see in the trailer, he’s pretty good at it and can cause some major devastation. For Batman, this appears to be a certain demise.

BUT…

He lives thanks to the introduction of an even more powerful shield donned by none other than Wonder Woman. Thanks to her, the Caped Crusader is saved and the world is introduced to yet another superhero.  Even more intriguing is her appearance was not chaperoned by either Batman or Superman.  She somehow appeared out of nowhere and ended up saving the day…at least for the Dark Knight.

It’s a pretty fun scene although at first glance, this seems to have little to do with antibiotic resistance.  Let me explain…

First off, antibiotics, while chemical in nature, are very similar to that energy burst from Doomsday.  All targets, bacteria and human cells are affected and many end up getting wiped out (yes, even our human cells can fall victim).  Not to mention, the landscape after an antibiotic treatment is devastated.  For a sensitive bacterium in the midst of the onslaught, death is a certainty. As Martha Stewart might say…

and-thats-a-good-thing(Yes, I went there)

Now, if a bacterium somehow develops resistance to an antibiotic, it has in effect picked up that shield and can survive the attack.  The shield could be a barrier or in some cases it could be a mechanism to break down the molecular energy rendering the antibiotic useless.  Either way, the carrier of the shield – and in many cases, those in the immediate vicinity – are saved and given the chance to fight another day.

As we all know, leaving an embittered entity in the middle of a wasteland can lead to even more troubles. For anyone suffering from an antibiotic resistant infection, they know this well. The bacteria grow without hesitation and in many cases end up producing even greater troubles thanks to toxins and other attacking chemicals.

Because of their ability to resist and eventually cause troubles, we tend to call these bacteria…

superbug

Superbugs!

In light of this particular trailer, though, I wonder if we may need to re-examine this term.

Think about this:  in the midst of Doomsday’s energy, Superman would have been just fine. He could handle the burst in the same way he seems to be relatively invincible.  Granted, there are some things that could hurt and possibly kill him (Kryptonite, anyone?) but in general, he’s pretty much unstoppable.

Batman, on the other hand, was a sitting duck. Without any type of resistance, he was surely a goner.  But thanks to the arrival of the Amazing Amazon, he was given a chance to embrace the protection. Of course, if she didn’t have that shield, she would have joined her human counterpart as a victim rather than a survivor.

If you look at antibiotic resistant bacteria, they are nothing like Superman.  Even if they could resist to all antibiotics – we call them pan resistant – they most likely can be killed with good ol’ fashioned soap and water. They are physically feeble and incredibly dependent on water, food, and a welcoming environment.  They are not super by any means. They simply have the weapons and defenses to keep them alive in the harshest climes. So why call them Superbugs?

Okay, I know it’s not all that important what they are called.  It’s just a fancy name for a particular group of bacteria. But in light of what we now know about their biology, biochemistry, and activities in various environments, including development or acquisition of resistance, perhaps it’s time for a change in perspective and in name.

Of course, choosing a new moniker may not be easy.  If we adopt the same superlative as the female shield bearer, we end up with…

wonderbugsWONDERBUGS!

Not to mention, there already is a wonder bug out there in the form of a car with a magical horn.  If you can remember…

Wonderbug_Krofft_Supershow_1976

…you are definitely over forty.

While “Wonderbugs” may not be the best choice to call antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we still need to examine a different nickname.

I think a better option would be to use a term based on their characteristics.  Let’s focus on the reality and leave out the superlatives. We don’t have to be academic either as there’s apparently no harm in creativity.  After all, we are in a world where the Son of Yeezus is called Saint (if you don’t know what that means, you are probably over forty).  I am sure we can find a good balance between science and the public.

So, with that in mind, let’s see if we can come up with a better name for antibiotic resistant bacteria than “Superbugs.” If we find one we all enjoy, we might even make it spread like a virus (which by the way is not affected by antibiotics) and become adopted in the public.

I’ll start by suggesting what I would love these bacteria to be called:

armor

ARMOR

(Antibiotic Resistant Microbes Of Relevance)

The first part is self-explanatory. But the second offers perspective on the importance of antibiotic resistance in our lives. After all, resistance is rampant in the environment but many of these species with shields are harmless to us and pose no threat to our health or medicine.  All together, it makes for a very good and scientifically accurate name to reflect the mechanism of antibiotic resistance.  I’m sure even superheroes would love the term.

Now it’s your turn. What is your suggestion to replace “Superbugs”?

Hope to hear your thoughts…

What Adele Can Teach Us About The Flu Vaccine

If you follow popular music, then you’ve no doubt heard about…

adele-25-packshot

Adele

This incredible songstress has been smashing records with her new album, simply entitled, 25. She has taken the music industry by storm and has reinvigorated the music scene. So much so, she had an entire television special devoted to her entitled, “Live in London.”

During her performance, she sang one of her most beloved songs, “Someone Like You.”

Most people in the audience knew the song and many joined in if only quietly.  But then, something happened at about 1:35 in the song.  She changed the melody, singing in a very different fashion than expected.

The audience sat back quietly listening, learning, and eventually figuring out the new direction.  By the end of the song, the people were back, singing with her, matching the new notes perfectly generating a perfect moment for everyone there and watching from afar.

As I sat watching, I was taken by the experience and immediately thought to another important part of our lives…

immune-system

The Immune System

Much like the audience, our immune systems are forced to deal with something altogether new and unexpected such as a novel strain of the flu.  Eventually, though, our defense forces develop a response and evolve to the changed environment.

The only difference is the time it takes to adapt.  As you can see, the audience needed only a few minutes.  Our bodies need much longer, up to three weeks.  During that time, we experience cellular confusion, viral analysis, and attempts to respond which manifest in the form of symptoms. Yes, those coughs, sniffles, aches and pains are simply due to our bodies trying to figure out how to deal with the unknown or at least changed entity.

Much like anyone trying to learn a song, immunity needs practice to achieve the right match.  This can be difficult without some type of guide.  All one has to do is ask musicians about the trials and errors of figuring out an entire piece of music from scratch only using their ears.  It’s a painstaking task with a variety of symptoms – usually psychological – attached to it.  For immunity to achieve the same result, our bodies have to undergo the same tribulations.

But there is a way to reduce the time and effort needed to gain the ability to learn.  For a musician, this comes in the form of sheet music and/or prior recordings. For our immune systems, it’s…

vaccine

 

A vaccine is for the most part, an easy method of training the immune system to adapt to a particular pathogen.  It’s essentially a biological form of sheet music or recording allowing our immunity to adapt to the invader and learn how to react.

Normally, only one or a few shots are needed to accomplish the task. But there is one case where a single shot is simply not good enough. It’s the influenza virus or, the flu.

As I said in my book The Germ Code, this virus is the master of evolution and is continually changing.  Our immune systems have to figure out how to react to these changes.  But the change is minimal. If we have already experienced a similar version of the virus, we can fight while we adapt. If we have had no previous exposure, the time it takes to react may be insufferable.

Take Adele’s song change.  The audience already knew 95% of the music and lyrics so the minor change allowed for a rapid adaptation.  If she had sung something completely unknown, however, she would have been met with silence.  There simply would not have been enough time to evolve and adapt to the new combination of notes and words.

The same exists for influenza. If we have already seen most of the virus in the form of infection or vaccination, any subsequent infection may end up being mild.  The more we are infected – or preferably vaccinated – the better trained our bodies will be against the virus.  It’s why getting a shot every year can be helpful even if you never come into contact with the flu.

Of course, there are some times when a vaccine may not match the virus exactly.  We saw that last year when the formulation missed one of the targets.  But…

vaccine-effectiveness

That was only one of three strains (the first one). The others were gave the expected levels of protection across all ages. This meant there was still a good reason to get the shot.

I appreciate this may not be entirely convincing as the numbers are far less than what people expect from a vaccine: 100%.  Yet, when it comes to the flu, the immune system can use all the help it can get.  Even if the protection isn’t perfect, by having that training, when the virus does show up, our immune systems can adapt more quickly and help to reduce the severity of symptoms.  Considering the impact of a full blown infection while our immune systems try to adapt, it may be well worth getting the shot, even if it is a partial miss.

As always, I would love to know your thoughts…

 

 

 

A Trifecta Coda To Antibiotic Awareness Week

Hey everyone…

I know it’s been some time since I wrote here. For more on why, check out my front page.

Last week was a special time for those working in public health.  It was the first…

aaw

After 70 years of knowing bacteria can become resistant to these life-saving drugs, the world has taken notice.  You may have seen and heard headlines in the media over the last week discussing antibiotics. The situation has become a crisis as we face what is known as the post-antibiotic era.

But what exactly does that mean? Perhaps this might help:

ar-casesdeaths-cdc

This is just in the United States – worldwide, the number is far greater.

The statistics are frightening and the risk for troubles are growing.  But while the message about antibiotic resistance spreads, some of the more valuable information has been left unsaid.

Now that Antibiotic Awareness Week is over, I wanted to add a coda to the event. I wanted to bring attention to the issue by going into the science of the issue and show some of the latest work describing just how resistance comes about, what we can do in the present, and a look to the future.


popsci-resistanceThe Complexity of Antibiotic Resistance

First, my Popular Science column explores how antibiotic resistance comes about. It’s all about a word used quite often in ecology:  fitness.  When a bacterium comes into contact with an antibiotic, it may die but it may also find a way to survive. Depending on the drug, the fitness differs, even for the same bacterium.  This reveals how dynamic resistance is as a whole and why it is so difficult to prevent.  After all, you’re looking for a needle in a haystack.


mechanismThe Ways Antimicrobial Peptides can kill bacteria

My Huffington Post Canada column takes a different look at the problem by looking forward to the future. Because resistance to antibiotics is so hard to tackle, the best way to approach it is to look for alternative measures.  One of the best options is called an antimicrobial peptide, or AMP.

These molecules are simple in design and extremely effective at killing bacteria. The supply could be endless as almost every species on Earth produces them. All we need to do is go hunting for them and then test them in the lab. Though it may take some time, AMPs may be the answer to antibiotics and may one day become the treatment of choice.


Finally, I wanted to take a completely different perspective on antibiotic resistance not seen in the news. For this, I teamed up with two great video experts, Jay Trout and Sean Webb. Together, we put a short 2:22 video together on where you can find antibiotic resistance and what you can do to help prevent the post-antibiotic era.

As you’ll see, there are three easy ways you can make a difference.  After all, we all play a role in stalling the approach of the post-antibiotic era.  We can all do our part.

For those wondering, the video is in Standard Definition so anyone with a slow internet stream can still watch it. If you are looking for an HD version, just let me know.


Antibiotic resistance will continue to be a problem for a very long time. But knowing the trifecta past, present, and future will ultimately help us to achieve the goals of Antibiotic Awareness Week. We cannot lose our ability to use antibiotics…at least not yet.  Let’s make sure we are all helping to make a difference.

As always, would love to know your thoughts.

 

 

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