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The Germ Guy: Confessions of a Mercurial Microbiologist

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#AskTheGermGuy – What’s the deal with Hydrogen-Rich Water?

Every now and then I get a question that makes me want to just scream…

cmon-man(or an equivalent with less family-friendly language)

Earlier this week, I was asked about a new item trying to become the latest health fad. It’s called…

hydrogen-rich-waterHydrogen-Rich Water

Right off the bat, you might be thinking this is a scam. After all, anyone who knows the chemical structure of water knows it contains two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen. In other words…it’s already two-thirds hydrogen.

But this type of water is different. It uses a chemical reaction to form a small amount of hydrogen gas (about 2 parts per million, which is about the same level as chlorine in an indoor swimming pool). The process requires two things…water and a stick of magnesium. When they mix, you get a combination of magnesium hydroxide and hydrogen gas.

You might be wondering how is this relatively simple chemical reaction – and rather low amount of hydrogen gas – is becoming a health fad. Well, when you ingest this water, the hydrogen gas acts as an antioxidant and helps the body to remove free radicals.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Free radicals are a part of life but having too many of them can indeed be problematic. After all, they contribute to, well…

 

rosDestruction of DNA!

Based on the reports, this damage can shorten your life, make you prone to chronic diseases, and make wrinkles happen faster. In other words, they are…

bad(Yet his music was so good!)

But you can avoid all this harm by simply using the magnesium stick to make hydrogen-rich water. Once you get the stick, you are guaranteed to be saved…

miracle(Or at least so it seems)

In reality, the science is good. Hydrogen gas can reduce the number of free radicals. This in turn can help to reduce the chances of inflammation, several chronic diseases, and those wrinkles. In addition, clinical trials have shown hydrogen-rich water can be beneficial to a person’s health.

With this in mind you might be asking…

whats-the-big-deal-2If it works, why not use it?

Well, it comes down to the actual frequency needed to actually make a difference.

Back in 2012, a group wanted to examine the effect of hydrogen-rich water on the formation of hydrogen gas in the body. They did this by looking at the level of hydrogen in the breath. You can read the whole paper here: https://medicalgasresearch.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/2045-9912-2-15

When people drank hydrogen-rich water, the effect lasted 45 minutes. That’s not really a long time when it comes to our day to day existence. Also, to keep those levels up, people had to drink 200 mL every half hour to keep the concentration high enough to be effective.

In other words, to keep yourself primed with hydrogen-rich water, you’re going to have to drink…

water-glasses6 litres a day! (That’s over 1.5 gallons)

Considering the average person drinks about 1.5L or six glasses, that’s a heck of a jump. Moreover, you cannot do it all at once or else you risk significant health problems through a condition known as hyperhydration. Put it this way…


ldwaterToo much water can kill!

There is, however, a much better way to get the benefits of hydrogen. In that 2012 study, the researchers also examined other dietary options. The most effective and long lasting happened to come from something you might have in your home right now.

fiberLactulose to be exact

Yes, the addition of fibre to the diet can improve the formation of hydrogen gas and keep those free radicals at bay. While the study looked at lactulose, other options, such as psyllium and inulin also will be beneficial. What’s even better is the fact the effects after one teaspoon can last several hours.

There’s also another reason to go with fibre over hydrogen-rich water. The trillions of bacteria living in your intestines simply adore the stuff and will be happy with each dose. You in turn end up having a more balanced microbial population. In other words…

oprahYou just don’t get a car.

If you are interested in using hydrogen to improve your health, I would simply recommend you forgo the magnesium stick and instead fancy some fibre.

If, however, you do choose to go with the water option, I’d love to know what you think of the results.

The Tale Of The Tasmanian Devil, The Cancer, And The Genetic Miracle…

The mere mention of the Tasmanian Devil may bring up memories of this guy…

taz_2Blah-bphftt-blu-blah-blaa!

In reality, the actual Tasmanian Devil, or for you biology purists out there, Sarcophilus harrisii, looks like this…

Tasmanian devil(Just don’t call it honey badger)

These creatures have been having a rough time as of late. There’s been a rather nasty infection going around called Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease. As the name implies, it’s not caused by a bacterium or virus…but a cancer.

koala-whatI know…a cancer?!?

It turns out this disease can be transmitted through a bite, much like an infection. The tumour cells end up integrating into the normal tissue – like a graft – and then grow. They eventually cover the face and then spread throughout the body. It’s almost 100% fatal.

As you might expect, the situation has been rather grim, In a matter of 20 years, the population has dropped by around 80%. There has even the mention of extinction as a result of this particular illness. Needless to say…

crying-tazTaz Sad

But there may now be hope thanks to a recent discovery. It turns out some devils are immune to the cancer. You can read all about it here:
http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2016/160830/ncomms12684/full/ncomms12684.html

You might wonder how these animals survive and well, it is an interesting story. It turns out they have evolved to become immune to the effects of this particular cancer. Essentially, they have become…

supertazA Real Tasmanian Hero!

A closer examination of the immune animals revealed this sudden superpower was not quite as dramatic as one might think. This wasn’t some X-Men styled mutation leading to a new found power. Instead, there were seven small changes in the genetic code. They’re called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or…

snpSNPs (pronounced “snips”)

They occur quite often in every single living species. But most of the time, they have little to no effect on the way we live. They just happen to be there and make for some interesting genetic reading.

However, in this case, the SNPs happened at the right place and at the right time. In essence, it was a…

taz-miracleTasmanian (Devil) Miracle!

From a purely evolutionary perspective, the word miracle isn’t altogether far from the truth. Normally, a useful SNP may take dozens if not hundreds of generations to appear. But in this case, the changes – all seven of them – happened in less than two decades. Considering devils mate every two or so years, this rapid change for the genetic good is completely unexpected.

The appearance of these resistant animals means there is hope yet for the Tasmanian Devil. All that’s needed is a little…

taz-etteDevilish Breeding!

The SNPs can be transferred to a new generation making them capable of resisting the cancer. Over time, with enough resistance, the cancer may be incapable of spreading and eventually will disappear. At that point we can all take a deep sigh of relief knowing these animals are safe and sound.

wat-moreMy story isn’t done…

Now…
Imagine the Tasmanian Devil is a bacterium.
Change the cancer into an antibiotic.
Reduce the generation time from 2 years to 20 minutes.

Good? Now let me ask you this question:
“How long do you think it will take before that bacterium
gets the right SNPs to make the drug useless?”

taz-shoclLet’s just say you probably don’t want to know.

That’s why antibiotic resistance is such a concern….

 

What Brangelexit Can Tell Us About Antibiotic Resistance…

It was quite the week Two historic events happened over the last seven days. They were captured and shared by millions. However,  only one seemingly gained the attention they both deserved.

The first was one of the most important moments in our generation. It happened in New York and involved 193 countries all coming together to act on what might be the greatest threat in our time…

HLM Antimicrobial Resistance_Identifier

You may have heard about this meeting in the news. What you may not know is the result. It’s a political declaration of action to combat this rising threat to our health. You can read more about it here: http://www.un.org/pga/71/2016/09/21/press-release-hl-meeting-on-antimicrobial-resistance/

If you hadn’t heard about this meeting, I won’t hold it against you. Because the other incredible event stole away any momentum this might have seen. If you haven’t guessed it by now, it was the announcement that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are…as my friend Sean Webb ingeniously coined…


jolie-pitt-cover-435x580Consciously Unmegacoupling

The news overshadowed any attempt to bring the plight of antibiotics into the spotlight. The Brangelexit, as it is now known, completely stole any chance the UN meeting had to increase awareness of the looming crisis. The declaration became little more than a small news story.

You might think I’m upset. I am. But I also know popular culture far outshines any scientific news, except perhaps…

plutodemotedPoor Pluto…

But as it’s the weekend, I didn’t want to go on some rant. Instead, I felt it best to find a positive from the announcement. As I searched my soul and my….

Plutonian Heart

I realized there was a link between the two events. In fact, I came to understand how the separation of these two mega-stars could actually provide perspective on antibiotic resistance. The feeling was so strong that I almost had to break into song. But, alas, that would not be good and so I decided instead on a different, poetic approach.

I present to you…

brangelinaThe End Of An Era May Save Another

 Woe has struck the land as Brangelina is no more;
The divorce papers have officially been put on file;
Now Hollywood is shaken to its innermost core;
The power couple’s love has turned to a rift most vile.

This tale of separation from a most valued friend;
Is happening in medicine and causing an ominous storm;
We are losing antibiotics upon which we so deeply depend;
Without action, living without them will soon be the norm.

Unlike Brad and Angie, there is hope for us still;
There are ways and means to prevent this great divide;
Now the UN has stepped in using its ceremonious quill;
Declaring the world is ready to act and abide.

We all have a role to play if we wish to avoid Brangelina’s fate;
Working in harmony we can beat antibiotic resistance before it’s too late.

A Different Kind of MoSS To Disinfect Water

Let’s say you are out in the wilderness and your name isn’t Bear Grylls or….

survivormanLes Stroud (still one of my favorite shows)

You’re going to get thirsty and that means you need water. But as we all know, drinking water can be troublesome as it could lead to serious illness and unlike those Naked an Afraid participants, no means to get rapid medical attention.

What can you do? Well, some plants have been thought to make the water safe to drink. One of the most popular in this category happens to be….

moss2Moss (makes for a great wall covering too!)

But alas, this is merely a myth. For the most part, moss doesn’t have the ability to make water safe enough for anyone.

Granted, there is a genetically modified form that came out of Germany back in 2013. You can read more about it here:
http://www.wzw.tum.de/index.php?id=185&L=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=573

But as you might expect…

mossIt’s more of a lab thing.

Recently, however, a new concept in “MoSS” water disinfection has been unveiled and may soon be taking the world by a clean water storm. It takes little effort to perform, requires nothing more than sunshine, and can be used almost anywhere.

So what’s the catch you ask?

Simple. Don’t expect this MoSS to look all green and furry. Instead, get ready for…

Chicklets Anyone?

The “MoSS” in this case is the name of a plant but a chemical formula for a molecule known as Molybdenum disulfide. It’s more commonly written as MoS2 (and to those chemistry purists out there…yes I know MoSS is technically incorrect usage but give me a break here!)

Anyhoo….

The chemical is an industrial lubricant but it has one particular property when it is aligned in a vertical manner such as in the picture above. It can interact with light. When the chemical does, the surrounding water changes in appearance. Some of it will form into what are known as reactive oxygen species, or ROS. The process can be best described in this image…

water_disinfection_v01Pretty cool, eh?

If you’re wondering whether the water will be safe to drink with all those ROS molecules, just remember, they are found everywhere including inside of each of us. Our bodies use these same molecules to kill infections. So, when it comes to this water…

 

allgoodNeed I say more?

While the device is still in development, you can still learn more about it by heading to the latest story on this fascinating means to make water safe:
https://www6.slac.stanford.edu/news/2016-08-15-slac-stanford-gadget-grabs-more-solar-energy-disinfect-water-faster.aspx

If you happen to have access to journal articles, you can read the scientific paper here:
http://www.nature.com/nnano/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nnano.2016.138.html


Do you have a cool way to purify water you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments section below.

Is My Water Bottle Out To Kill Me?

I get quite a few questions every week on the topics of microbiology, immunology, and increasingly neuroscience. This week, I expected to have quite a few requests to comment on what I believed would be the health story of the week…

clinton-pneumoniaHillary Clinton’s Pneumonia

But I was wrong. While I did get a few questions about her health and the nature of Levaquin, most of the requests centered on another potential health scare…


bottle-1YOUR WATER BOTTLE!

The concern arises from a study – and I use that term lightly – on the amount of bacteria found on different water bottle types. You can read the entire process and results here: Water Bottle Germs Revealed.

The results came back showing water bottles were a hub for germy grossness. On average, these exercise accessories contained what was considered to be a shocking number…over 300,000 bacteria per square centimetre! The study then went on to compare that number to the number of germs found on toilet seats and also, for some reason, pet toys.

As you might expect, this was enough to make me…

facepalm
Shake My Head

But…because it’s the weekend, rather than go on a rant, I thought a calmer, gentler approach might be better. Besides, why go on and on when the study and what it means can be summed up in a few short iambic lines…14 to be exact.

So, without further ado…I present…

bottle-3The Water Bottle And You…

“Keep hydrated!” is a common and useful refrain;
Water and electrolytes certainly are necessities of life.
Yet you are not the only one who is able to gain;
These elements help bacteria grow without strife.

In your water bottle, you will find, as these little germs grow;
They will far outnumber those found on toilet seats and toys;
But don’t fret about your health as the numbers don’t show;
Any significant threat to your wellness and poise.

If you wish to prevent bacteria from becoming too lush;
There’s an easy method to to keep their numbers at bay;
Simply acquire soap and hot water – and a soft bottle brush;
Soak, scrub, and rinse at least once every few days.

There is one last thing to know about your bottle and I hope this rings true;
Those microbes are probably harmless because most of them came from you.

 

 

Here’s What Makes Your Wet Dog Stink…

Let’s face it…

wet-dogDogs Love To Get Wet

But while they may enjoy the feeling of water, it comes with a consequence…

smellyTHEY STINK

While I have met some dog owners who are fond of that wet-dog smell, most people find the scent off-putting if not completely unbearable. After all, not many people would be fond of the musty, sickly-sweet, and sulfurous emanations arising from humanity’s best friend.

Many may wonder what causes this offending outburst of olfactory oppression. Not surprisingly, the answer is microbes. Millions of these tiny creatures live in dog hair although most of the time, they are slow growing and do not give off much of a scent.

But, with the introduction of water, many bacterial species become just as happy as wet Fido or damp Fluffy. The microbes grow, multiply, eat and of course, rid themselves of waste. However, as there is no microbial toilet available, these unwanted – and usually smelly – molecules are jettisoned into the fur. As the dog dries, many of these chemicals evaporate into the air and eventually reach our nostrils.

Yet, even though we know WHY dogs smell, there is still the question of WHAT exactly is making you…well…

Hold Thy Nose!

To find that out, the great team over at Compound Interest took on the task of identifying the chemicals causing the cringe and crinkling. The result is the following infographic with everything you need to know about that smell.

You can find a larger version of this image and more information here: The Chemistry Behind the Smell of Wet Dogs As you can see, many of the chemicals have a rather reasonable aroma in isolation. But merge them together and you end up with a concoction certain to cause cerebral craze.

Thankfully, there is an easy answer to this conundrum to alleviate all concern. It’s simple and most of the time even enjoyable…at least for the dogs…

 

dog_bathGIVE THEM A BATH

So…have you ever had to deal with the wet dog smell? If so, how do you find the aroma? Is it pleasing or putrid? Can you stand it for long or do you have a bath waiting in the wings?

Let me know your thoughts!

Zika & The Olympics….Addressing The Hype…and that Letter

Since January, I’ve been speaking quite a bit on the Zika virus. Most of the time, I’ve been calming fears, keeping the public informed, and making sure the situation didn’t go completely out of control as it did with Ebola, or as I called it…

fearbolaFEARBOLA!

But a few months ago, someone, somewhere started a rather unbelievable form of fear. A letter was written to the World Health Organization demanding postponement of the Olympic Games in Rio. You can read it here: https://rioolympicslater.org. It was signed by 240 people warning the world of an impeding pandemic if the event was allowed to progress.

I spent quite a bit of time trying to reassure people there was no risk. Countless hours of both on air and behind the scenes work was done in the hopes of keeping this obvious attempt at hype from causing another outbreak of fear.

Well, the Olympics have come and gone and enough time has passed to allow for the virus’ incubation period. The result: nothing…or for my Brazilian friends: nada. Not a single case was found.

How could 240 people get it so wrong? I could go on and on but…the most obvious answer is quite short…so much so I could fir the entire story into say…14 lines.

So without further ado…let me present to you…


zika-olympicsRio Olympics Later (A Cautionary Tale)

“Stop the Olympic Games!” they cried;
“Lest a vicious pandemic shall ensue!”
Two hundred and forty they numbered, mouths all open wide;
Demanding this unprecedented coup.

There was something in the logic that just didn’t jive
‘Twas an omission in the facts they employed;
Rio would be too cold  – see here –  for mosquitoes to thrive;
The prognosticated pandemic would be nothing but an empty void.

The Games went ahead based on evidence, not qualms;
Nary an infection – nor mosquito – was seen.
The 240 must now rue deeply their attempts at aplomb;
And try to redeem their now tarnished sheen.

This story offers a lesson to those wishing to avoid all this pain;
Make sure to use “Google Scholar” before trying to raise viral fears again.


A Virus With An Avengers Twist…

Over the last few years, there have been quite a few movies based on comic books and several have been standouts. One of the most successful franchises is known as…

avengersTHE AVENGERS

This team has saved the planet countless times both on page and silver screen. History has shown they work best when together, but the members do have a habit of splitting up on their own. When they do, the outcomes are not as spectacular nor as Earth-changing, but they do leave a wider impression on the people and sometimes, can help make a spin-off superhero movie a success.

I digress…

The concept of splitting up is not all that uncommon on an evolutionary basis. Higher order animals do this regularly especially in horror movies and…

Split-UpScooby-Doo Episodes

Not to mention, bacteria have been doing this for as long as they have been around.

biofilmSplitting Up For Form Biofilms

But this trait never has been seen in animal viruses. This should make sense as these biological entities are designed to act as individuals, not as a team. The components need to stay together in order to survive.

Yet, thanks to a recent discovery, that viral view may change…

A Virus That Splits Up

What you are looking at are images of a single virus species, known as Guaico Culex virus, or GCXV. It was recently discovered in mosquitoes (Culex) in Trinidad (Guaico). The different colours, much like the markings of the Avengers, happen to be different segments of the virus’s genetic code. As you can see, they are scattered all over the place.

When you group the photos together, you end up with something like this…

gcxv-infectiousAn Examination of All Segments

Look for any cells appearing brown. These have all the segments of the virus and are unfortunately doomed. The green, orange, and blue cells, are going to survive even though they contain some of the segments. That is, until the brown ones burst and spread segments all over the place.

While the finding is remarkable from an evolutionary perspective, the reason behind this phenomenon may not be as easy to deduce. Even the researchers who discovered the trait weren’t quite sure why this virus seems to split up.

There is, however, one theory and it has to do with something the Avengers enjoy exploiting…

hulk-lokkiHULK SMASH!!!

Numerous segments of the virus, much like members of the Avengers, head out in search of enemies to defeat. When they have found the targets, they engage. However, the superhero may not have enough power, energy, somersaults, arrows, whatever, to win. Same goes for the virus. It just doesn’t have all the machinery to kill. But then along comes the Hulk to save the day, usually with a good smash. In the same way, the other viral segments show up and eventually, the virus survives.

While this premise is still a theory, there is at least one factor the virus doesn’t need to worry about when it comes to assembling…

hulk-thorOnly The Hulk Smashes Indiscriminately

If you want to read more on the GCXV discovery and the fascinating mechanism of splitting up, you can find the entire article here: A Multicomponent Animal Virus Isolated from Mosquitoes

 

 

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.

 

 

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