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The Germ Guy: Confessions of a Mercurial Microbiologist

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Science Communication, Isaac Asimov, and Creativity…

I am asked quite a number of questions when I’m on the road and as you might expect, most deal with germs. But every now and then, someone wonders exactly how to come up with inventive ways to communicate science.

One answer I like to give is…

isaac-asimovHeed the words of Issac Asimov

Dr. Asimov opened the door to widespread scientific communication through his wonderful writings. He also sparked imaginations worldwide bringing science closer to the individual.

During his tenure on this Earth, he wrote numerous essays on the topic of writing and creativity yet one of his most important for anyone interested in communicating science was written in 1959. It was for the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA. It was simply titled…

creativityON CREATIVITY

The essay itself wasn’t released until 2014 and so I read it partly as an after thought as I was already well into my tenure as a science communicator. But as I read it, I found some parallels between his words and the work I was doing. Some of these passages included:

“A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others. 

Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)”

This represents the base for anyone interested in science communication. Rather than following standard routes, taking an unconventional – or, as my blog’s name suggests, mercurial – route can bring about both awareness and in some cases action on the part of the audience.

“My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it.”

When I am in the process of developing those parallels, I do it alone. I have tried numerous times to work with others but as Asimov says,

“The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.”

It’s absolutely true. Most of my ideas simply do not fit the goal and are tossed aside. Though this may seem unproductive, as a researcher, it’s all part of the process. In the lab, the same trial and error is used to find the right hypothesis, the best experimental design, the most telling band or fluorescence marker, and of course, the most appropriate journal to publish the results.

All scientists go through these motions though I find few seem to realize how the actions of their vocation form the foundation for creativity. By giving oneself the chance to explore, that ability to find what works can arise.

I’ve only quoted a few passages from Asimov’s essay. I would truly recommend reading the entirety as it is a gripping read especially for anyone who has wanted to make a move towards the creative. He also uses the word sinecure in the most fascinating context.

You can find Dr. Asimov’s essay by clicking the link below:

Published for the First Time: a 1959 Essay by Isaac Asimov on Creativity

If you happen to be a science communicator, or are interested in giving it a try, let me know if the words in the essay ring true.

 

 

Are You Ready For A Health Tea-volution?

Most people upon hearing the word, tea, think of this…

teaA nice cuppa!

But the giant tea company Tetley, wants you to think of tea in a different light. They recently began an exploration of tea technology and uses over the coming decade. They’ve aptly named it…

future-tea1(hashtag included)

You can read the entire concept here:
http://www.tetley.co.uk/whats-brewing/the-future-of-tea

Some of the ideas seem based in the current coffee culture and the rise of do-it-yourself wellness. But some are an apparent throwback to traditional medicine with a modern twist.

For centuries, medicinal teas have been used to help manage and/or cure diseases of all kinds. They may not have been as effective as today’s medicines but research has shown many blends did have chemical constituents capable of alleviating certain types of ailments. An entire branch of scientific research continue to learn how the remedies of the past have value today.

But Tetley wants to take it one step further. Instead of going the traditional route in which a healer determines the best concoction for the right symptoms, the company proposes, well, this…

tea-future-2A personal remedy tea-making machine.

The concept involves reading personal data, such as vital signs, to determine if there are any problems with overall health. Then, using a computerized algorithm, the right mixture of chemicals can make the right brew for you. Add in some medicinal ingredients and the concoction can deliver remedies without the need for a pill.

Of course, this may all seem like science fiction and the company admits this is a look forward to 2026. However, some of the technology is already in place. One such example is this…

wearabl-sensor
A wearable vital signs sensor

This small but powerful band was designed to help monitor people during the Ebola outbreak in Africa. The device can track a number of parameters including:

  • Heart rate
  • Pulse synchronized oxygen saturation
  • Temperature
  • Respiratory rate
  • Depth of respiration
  • Motion/position

The information can be sent to a computer via USB however a Bluetooth version is in the works. You can read more about the technology here:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4570021/

Just imagine if the computer receiving the information was contained within the tea-making machine. The result would be akin to a personalized traditional healer (in digital format) able to provide the right combination of herbs, medicines, and fluids.

Now of course, there is one obvious question not addressed in the document…

hal

Would you trust a computer with your health?

Finding the answer to this question, I’m afraid, may be no cup of tea.

Cucumber Mosaic Virus: Pathogenic Philanthropy or Devious Domination?

Most people think of viruses as nothing more than parasitic organisms looking to kill its host. This limited view doesn’t take into consideration the sustained survival of the pathogen. After all, if the host dies, so will the virus. That’s why these organisms need a large supply of unwitting – and usually unwilling – victims.

Human viruses have it pretty good thanks to all that shedding we do over the course of a day. But the same cannot be said for plant viruses. Plants don’t move and for the most part, don’t share their vital fluids without some help. Without outside assistance from creeping plants or insects, the future can be quite dire.

Which brings me to this interesting pathogen…

cmvIt’s called Cucumber Mosaic Virus (CMV)

You may not have heard about it but you may have seen it in action…

cuke_mosaicThis is what it does to cucumbers

But these plants are not the only host for this virus. The pathogen can infect over one thousand different species of plants including one we all cherish…

cmv-tomatoesTomatoes

The most important route of spread happens to be aphids. These little insects can pick up the virus and spread it to another healthy plant. But there’s a problem. When an aphid sees an infected plant, they tend to say…

nopeCan you blame them?

So the virus has developed an ingenious method to get the aphids to come. They lure the insects by changing the way the plant smells. It’s a rather complicated process so I won’t go into the details. If you are curious, you can read more about it here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2840436/

This game-game changing trait makes CMV even more troublesome than once believed. Yet, there are even more surprises in store. In a study released today, it seems the virus can attract more than just aphids. They also seem to lure in…

bee-tomato Bees…

At first glance, this may seem reasonable as bees are pollinators. They would help to spread the virus. Except bees don’t actually come into contact with the pathogen. Attracting them seems to have no value to virus survival. Which brings up the question…

Start_With_WhyWhy would the virus do this?

There are two trains of thought as to why this phenomenon occurs.

The first is a form of pathogenic philanthropy. When the bees come near a tomato plant, their buzzing wings tend to improve self-pollination. The number of seeds per fruit – yes, tomato is a fruit – increases and the plant population may increase.  The buzzing may also help cross-pollination giving the population an even greater chance for sustained success over the generations.

When you hear this side of the story, you might think…

cat-niceWho doesn’t love a virus that gives back?

As for that second theory, it’s as you might expect, devious domination. The virus needs a sustainable crop of hosts to maintain survival. Bees are the perfect vectors as their activity has no link to the virus itself. As the number of tomato plants increase, the virus has a better chance at survival.

But there’s even more malice to this method. Some tomato plants can resist the virus making survival less likely. By attracting bees to the infected plants, the virus is effectively ensuring resistance is diluted out of the tomato population. This would allow the virus to completely dominate the environment in a dastardly and definitively despicable way. You could say…

pres-snowPresident Snow Approves
(if you don’t know who this is…ask your kids)

While both theories are possible, neither has been proven as interviewing a virus tends to gain few answers (they are always mysterious that way). However, if one is to bet on the reason behind this strange action of the virus, I suggest the latter is correct. Considering self-sustainability drives pretty much all biological life, selfish preservation always, um, trumps, benefiting others.

May the odds be ever in your favour…

PS – if you want to read the article to get a better sense of the work done, you can find it here:
http://journals.plos.org/plospathogens/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.ppat.1005790

Clinical Trials 2.0 – Finding Volunteers Using Facebook

You’ve probably heard of clinical trials. They are frequently mentioned in the media whenever there is a new advancement in medicine. But you might not know they are randomized, meaning the participants are not specifically chosen. Depending on the goals of the trial, certain populations are targeted but researchers do not know in advance who might be involved. It helps to keep the results fair and objective.

Of course, to get a large enough size of possible volunteers, those in charge of conducting trials need to recruit members of the public. They do this using advertising, usually in newspapers and other traditional media. For the most part, these recruitment documents are rather boring but at times, they can be inventive…

clinical-trial(Who wouldn’t want to contact this researcher?)

But now there may be another way to recruit participants using social media. Last month, a team of Australian researchers reported on how they were able to acquire volunteers using something we have all seen…

The Facebook Ad

At first glance, you might not know what exactly is being offered other than a ten dollar gift voucher. That’s the plan…they want you to wonder. When you click on the link, however, you won’t be taken to some clothing manufacturer or travel booking agency as you might expect. Instead, you end up here…

vaccine-studyThat’s right…a vaccine clinical trial.

The paper examined the effect of this type of advertising over the course of four years, from 2011 to 2015. In addition to the advertisement above, they also had other slightly more informative ads like this one…

You might have even seen the advert and clicked on it.

Over the course of the four years, the ad had 55,381,637 impressions with a reach of 984,159 people. As for how many women actually clicked on the link? It was rather small at 23,714, or about two and a half percent.

The click rate was pretty low in comparison to standard advertising, which has about a three to six percent return rate. Yet, for the authors of the study, this was significantly higher than other methods as they ended up with 919 potential volunteers. Almost four-fifths had seen the ad and made the choice to apply. The others were either referred by friends or read the advert on a friend’s wall.

As for the cost, it was just over 22,000 Australian dollars, or about $24 per participant. For the authors, this was rather inexpensive burden for this type return. They had what they needed and more importantly, developed a method which others can use to improve their own clinical trial recruitment.

In light of this study, this seems like a win-win situation. But I have to ask…would you click on a Facebook post advertising a clinical trial? Maybe it’s just me but that still seems a little sketchy.

Let me know your thoughts…

Oh, and if you want to read more on this concept, here’s the link to the paper…
Targeted Facebook Advertising is a Novel and Effective Method of Recruiting Participants into a Human Papillomavirus Vaccine Effectiveness Study

Measles And Music Festivals Make A Malicious Mix

Thanks to the fearful prophesies of an infectious Olympics, the world is awaiting any signs of the warned outbreaks ranging from Zika to norovirus. The premise does have some value as any mass gathering, such as the Games, increases the chance for infection spread. Yet, so far, it’s been relatively quiet.

The same cannot be said for another kind of mass gathering…

glastonburyThe Music Festival

In the United Kingdom, there has been a rise in infections coming from festivals including one of the largest, Glastonbury, pictured above.

While this might not be a surprise, the type of infection may raise a few eyebrows.

measlesMeasles

In the last few months, a total of 36 cases have been reported all sourced to a musical gathering. While this may be enough to make your head itch, the situation gets worse as some people didn’t catch the virus at the festival. Instead, they were already infected and yet still decided to go to the event to spread the joy and the virus.

The reaction to this revelation has been mixed but can generally be summed up with:

cmon-man
Who could be that unaware of the consequences?

But the worst is yet to come….

Most people believe measles only infects children. But the virus can attack anyone who might happen to be vulnerable. In these cases, the average age of those suffering is 20. The oldest person was…

42(If you don’t know who this is…ask your local fanboy or fangirl)

This information is rather startling. The slowdown in measles vaccination has been ongoing for only about 15 years. The older patients most likely would have received their first shots but perhaps not the boosters necessary to maintain protection throughout life. This suggests an even greater population may be vulnerable without even knowing it.

The solution may seem easy enough: get a booster no matter how old you are. But, that’s not all that easy in this day and age. With vaccine hesitancy continuing to rise, the idea of a mass vaccination campaign might end up being fruitless and be met with resistance. But that’s not all. People simply may believe they are safe from prior shots. They would feel like they don’t need to get the boosters.

All of this leaves Public Health England in a bit of a bind. To see how they have decided to move forward, you can check out their recommendations here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/measles-vaccination-advice-for-young-adults

If you think you have a better idea, why not share it here. I might even offer my own rather unconventional proposal…

 

The Perfect Example of “Shiny Object Syndrome”

When I’m not talking about germs and how to love them, I like to discuss the process of science communication, or scicomm. To be honest, as of late, most of my invited lectures at conferences and in courses tend to focus on how best to talk science in the real world. It’s quite rewarding as I enjoy helping others share their academic knowledge to a wider audience.

One of the best tricks of scicomm is to avoid what is known as the Shiny Object Syndrome. As you might expect, the term refers to an object, person, or event that grabs a person’s attention and hinders the accomplishment of any given task or objective.

I’ve been trying to find a good example of the syndrome for some time but never really have found the perfect model. Usually, I have had to come up with something stemming from the internet or hit TV show. Yet I think I finally may have found exactly what I needed.

It happened on Friday night at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies during the Parade of Nations.

canada-parade-of-nations-rio-2016-opening-ceremonyCanada in The Parade of Nations

Everything was going according to plan, meaning, it was long and for the most part uneventful. There were some good fashion moments, such as the uniforms from Madagascar and Norway. Some of the athletes were obviously looking to grab some time in the spotlight. Yet, as usual, the Parade seemed to drag on and people’s attentions began to wane.

And then something happened that changed everything…

 

The Shiny Object Syndrome Personified

Tonga was introduced and the oiled up flag bearer appeared in the spotlight.

The crowd went wild. The internet came close to breaking. Everyone was transfixed on that one oil-covered flag bearer. He was the quintessential shiny object and the world became transfixed in the syndrome. You can read more about it here: The Olympics’ oiliest man shines in opening ceremony

Although it took some time, the man behind the oil was identified as Pita Taufatofua. Within hours, everything about him was known. You can learn more here:
http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/08/05/tonga-flag-bearer-rio-olympics_n_11361356.html

While Taufatofua’s appearance did help to make the Parade more interesting, he risked taking away attention to one of the hallmark moments of the Games. Standing a few hundred feet behind him was another team carrying an incredible importance in terms of our global society.

2016 Rio Olympics - Opening ceremonyThe Refugee Olympic Team

Thankfully, like many Shiny Objects, the Syndrome was short-lived. When the refugees appeared in the stadium, they received the standing ovation they deserved. That moment, a first at the Olympics, was absorbed by all and highlighted one of the most important messages and one of the objectives behind the Games themselves.

 

ioc-logo

“The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious
development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society
concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

Enjoy The Games!


PS Have you ever suffered from the Shiny Object Syndrome? If so, let me know…

Can bacteria really live in dry flour?

Earlier this week, I had an excellent Email question regarding a foodborne outbreak in the United States. You can read more about it here: Multistate Outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O121 Infections Linked to Flour


That’s Right…Flour

The question was simple enough. How can bacteria live in this environment? After all, one of the three needs for growth – water – is missing.

The premise makes perfect sense yet, once again, bacteria seem to know how to break the rules. Many species can indeed survive drier areas. When it comes to flour, E. coli can survive for over 6 months. If you don’t believe me, check out this report:
http://www.nap.edu/read/12892/chapter/20#421

One section dealing with bacterial growth in various foods states:

Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, Salmonella enteritidis, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 can survive in flour and infant formula beyond 180 days. Survival in flour was best under refrigerated conditions.

The explanation behind this apparent paradox lies in the nature of the flour itself. While you might not see water, it is still there.

huh

In almost all areas of the world, water exists in the air in the form of humidity. Materials, like foods, may also have water content in the form of vapour pressure. This can be measured and compared to the vapour pressure of distilled water. The result is known as water activity (aw).

Water activity ranges from 0.0 (bone dry) to 1.0 (distilled water). In food safety, water activity is incredibly important as it can determine whether a product is at risk for microbial growth. For fungi, the activity needs to be above 0.7. For yeast, it’s 0.88. For mold, 0.80. As for bacteria, that number is 0.91.

Many food have been tested for their aw and lists now exist. One such example can be found at the FDA:
http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/Inspections/InspectionGuides/InspectionTechnicalGuides/ucm072916.htm

So, how does this relate to the flour outbreak? If the water activity was above that 0.91 threshold, then the bacteria would not only survive but also grow. If there were no antimicrobial steps in the processing stages, those bacteria would find their way into the food production chain and eventually to your counter.

As to whether water activity played a role in this particular outbreak, only further investigations will tell. There may have been other contamination events during the flour’s food continuum. But when it comes to the question at hand, as long as you have that water activity over 0.91, you can potentially have bacterial growth.

The Curious Case of Cola To Combat Swimmer’s Stomach

A friend sent me a text message asking a very strange question:

“Can cola kill pathogens after swimming?”

It seemed like an easy answer:

no
Swimmer’s stomach is a rather annoying condition whereby bacteria swallowed from natural waters end up giving people GI distress usually leading to diarrhea and sometimes vomiting. It’s not fun and any means to prevent the symptoms is welcome news.

But drinking cola? For me it seemed highly unlikely.

Yet the swimmer who swears by it also happens to be an Olympian and one of Canada’s better hopes for a medal.

Richard Weinberger, the 2012 bronze medalist in the Olympic 10K

You can read more about Richard and his quest – as well as his belief in cola – here:
Weinberger Predicting An “Epic” Olympic 10K Race In Rio de Janeiro

So, giving the swimmer the benefit of the doubt, I went in search of a possible mechanism behind his assertion. There were no clinical trials so any evidence he gave was purely personal and word of mouth. But that wasn’t a good enough reason to call it bunk. I wanted a mechanism to provide an explanation as to why it didn’t work – and also why people thought it might.

Then something strange happened. I came across an article from over 15 years ago. It was a rather obscure paper about killing E. coli on animal hides. You can see the abstract here: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/iafp/jfp/1999/00000062/00000006/art00003
The mechanism involved using phosphoric acid – just like the stuff found in cola – and mixing it with acidified salt water.

For me, this was an instant:

OSLO 20090612: A-ha med f.v. Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, Morten Harket og Magne Furuholmen inntok fredag Oslo for å markedsføre sitt nye album 'Foot of the mountain» som kommer i salg 15. juni. Foto: Berit Roald / SCANPIXA-HA! (if you don’t get this, ask your parents)

Reading the paper allowed me to see what could be happening in the gastrointestinal tract and why this cola trick might work. If you’re wondering, it goes something like this:

  1. Drink seawater – this is the only reason it works…freshwater won’t have any effect;
  2. Let it get acidified in the stomach – should be at least a few minutes if not more;
  3. Add phosphoric acid – drink the cola;
  4. Bow head for the gold medal – okay, this only applies to Weinberger.

I’m not saying this mechanism is actually occurring or that the technique works in the body. For that to happen, there would have to be clinical trials. Yet, as with many traditional remedies, this medical benchmark may never be reached.

For people like Weinberger and others, the answer comes down to whether they believe the mechanism. He does and if he stays safe, I’m happy for him. I admit I am skeptical. Yet, if I had known this idea when I was in Rio last year (and swallowed all that seawater) I might have given it a try.

As for my friend’s text message asking about cola and swimming, I know the people asking swim in the pool, not in the ocean. So in this case, the only answer is a very simple and emphatic:

no-drac

 

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

 

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