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The Germ Guy: Confessions of a Mercurial Microbiologist

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Scientific Article

Do You Really Need An Antibiotic?

This week has been filled with controversy. In that vein, I feel it’s a good time to say something equally controversial:

Sometimes the best antibiotic prescription
is no prescription at all.

Okay, if you happen to be in public health, especially in Canada, this might not seem all that troublesome. After all, it’s been a mantra in the medical community for years. Yet, considering we still hear about the abuse and misuse of these life-saving drugs, the guidance hasn’t been accepted universally.

One of the reasons for the lack of compliance is based on a statement I hear quite often when I’m out in the public realm. Maybe you have heard it – or said it – at one time or another:

Prove to me I don’t need an antibiotic.

Admittedly, it’s a difficult request. But over the last few years, researchers have been exploring whether a person can deal with a bacterial infection without the use of antibiotics. The answer is yes but finding a way to show this to the public has been a real challenge. Usually, the information is hidden in statistics, which can be subject to skepticism.

However, I came across something that might demonstrate why forgoing an antibiotic may be worthwhile. It looks something like this…

 (Kinda cool, eh?)

What you’re looking at is a figure that comes from a paper entitled, Symptom response to antibiotic prescribing strategies in acute sore throat in adults: the DESCARTE prospective cohort study in UK general practice. You can click on the title to read the paper.

As you can guess from the graph above and the title of the paper, the researchers examined the progression of the traditional sore throat based on symptoms. They looked at 1512 people who had suffered the illness. The symptom information then was matched with the treatment the individuals received.

  • Some had no antibiotics (the blue);
  • Some had a regular antibiotic prescription (the red);
  • Some had what is known as a delayed antibiotics (green).

Delayed antibiotics is a recent trend going around in which a patient is asked to wait a few days after an initial visit to determine if the infection goes away. This is a great way to determine if the infection is bacterial and may need antibiotics, or viral, in which case antibiotics are useless. This approach also allows the body to fight the infection few days. There’s a good reason for this:

The immune system can handle
many infections on its own.

Based on all the results, the addition of antibiotics resulted in an observed reduction in the length of the worst symptoms. But the extent was far less than anyone might have believed. In fact, once all the numbers were crunched, the benefit ended up being equivalent to a grand total of…

One day.

That’s it. Twenty-four hours of lessened symptoms. Nothing more.

The researchers did happen to point out that those who didn’t take antibiotics had a harder time dealing with the infection throughout the period. But in the end, they recovered just as well as those who had taken the antibiotics.

The results of this study may help add credence to the mantra, but that doesn’t mean forgoing antibiotics is valid for every infection. Just recently, I came across an individual who had a sore throat and decided not to take antibiotics. The person lasted a week before caving in to the pain. The bacterial infection was more troublesome and the immune system needed a boost.

If you are wondering what the best option might be should your throat start to scratch, your urinary tract start to burn, or your eyes begin to turn red and water, let me be perfectly clear:

I can’t tell you.

This is a decision that only can be made between you and your doctor.

What I will advise is that when you do feel those troubles and you make that appointment, don’t be quick to ask for a prescription. Your doctor may want perform some tests first to find out what might be causing the troubles. You may be asked to wait and see if your immune system can pull through. Or, there may be ample evidence to make the prescription immediately.

Just remember, if you are given a prescription and fill it, you need to stick with it until the end, even if you feel better. This way you can be sure that you are clearing your body of the infection and reducing the chances for recurrence down the road.

Finally, I’m curious about the use of antibiotics. So, let me ask a relatively simple question I hope many of you won’t mind answering:

When was your last antibiotic prescription?

 

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Ivanka Trump And A Different MAGA (Mosquitoes Ain’t Gonna Attack)

I don’t know anyone who actually enjoys getting bit by a mosquito. The only exception might be…

(Mosquito Researchers…)

The bites themselves are bad enough with the welts and incessant itching. But when you take into account the potential for disease transmission, a mosquito meal may present more than a mere annoyance. The list of potential infections is getting longer and the impact of these agents on human health is well…

(Staggering…)

There’s one sure way to avoid an infection…don’t get bit. That’s why media stories on mosquitoes and health usually include advice such as wearing long clothing, avoiding prime mosquito meal times, and of course, using a repellent, such as N,N-Diethyl-m-toluamide, which is better known as…

(DEET!)

How DEET works is pretty fascinating. It’s a chemical that gives off a particular odour that repels mosquitoes. The mechanism behind this action took quite some time to figure out but as always, scientists were on the case and eventually figured it out.

Much like humans have the olfactory system, which allows us to detect smells and determine whether we like them or not, mosquitoes have a similar mechanism to recognize molecules in the air. It looks something like this…

(Feel itchy yet?)

That ORN is known as an olfactory receptor neuron and it possesses a number of different proteins capable of recognizing various molecules in the air called odorant receptors. Somewhere within those neurons is a receptor that tells the mosquito to veer away when DEET is around.

Unfortunately, no one knew which one receptor was responsible. This made attempts to study this process any further difficult at best. Then in 2014, a team of researchers examined those odorant receptors and figured out which one detected DEET.  They published the finding in the paper, “Mosquito odorant receptor for DEET and methyl jasmonate,” which you can click on to read.

The receptor is called CquiOR136, which stands for Culex quinquefasciatus Odorant Receptor 136. It’s not a fancy name but the team makes up for this apparent lack of creativity with a cool sense of…

(Style…)

The data reveals CquiOR136, upon sensing DEET, or another molecule known as methyl jasmonate, sends a message to the mosquito’s brain that the environment is threatening and that it’s best to move on to other places. If that area happens to be your skin, you are saved from a bite.

This discovery allowed us to develop a new definition for the now common acronym, MAGA. Instead of Make America Great Again, however, these researchers have found the trick to ensure…

(“Mosquitoes Ain’t Gonna Attack.”)

After the discovery of CquiOR136, researchers tried to find other products capable of triggering that molecule and keeping mosquitoes away. Over the coming year, certain soaps and perfumes were found to repel mosquitoes. Some were even as good as DEET.

With this in mind, a team of Californian and Brazilian researchers decided it was worth looking at a specific perfume to see whether the product also could keep mosquitoes away.

The fragrance they settled on happened to be…

(You could say they were allured…)

Actually, we don’t know the answer as it was never mentioned in the paper. You can check for yourself by reading it here: Ingredients in Victoria’s Secret Bombshell and Ivanka Trump eaux de parfums that repel mosquitoes.

One could surmise, however, the choice was due to presence of an ingredient in the perfume. If you look at the title of the paper from the DEET researchers above, you’ll find a specific name, methyl jasmonate. As you might expect, it’s a molecule found in the jasmine plant, which is included in Ivanka’s fragrance description.

The team went searching to find something that looked like methyl jasmonate and they indeed found it. It was a little different in name – methyl dihydrojasmonate – but the group figured it may have the same effect on mosquitoes.

They performed the tests using another product already shown to repel the insects – Victoria Secret’s Bombshell – and observed whether the mosquitoes found the fragrance alluring or repulsive.

I’ll let the data speak for itself with this graph comparing DEET, Bombshell, and Ivanka’s perfume on how well skin was protected against bites…

(Pretty impressive…)

With this in mind, you might think about making the switch from DEET to Ivanka’s pink potion. But there is a slight issue one should consider. To get an equal level of protection as DEET, the same amount of perfume would have to be used as one would use with a repellent. This would probably mean changing the bottle top from the gentle, mist-forming, atomizer to well, this…

 (You get the point…)

In light of all the concerns we have these days with sensitivities to fragrances, it may not be all that great of an idea.  Not to mention, the cost of Ivanka’s fragrance is about US$30 a bottle. In comparison, that good old fashioned DEET spray will set you back less than $10.

While this study is obviously as much fun as it is science, there is a serious message. In light of the troubles mosquitoes can cause, you can never go wrong with keeping a good repellent around. It’s all about keeping true to MAGA – Mosquitoes Ain’t Gonna Attack.

Whether you go with the usual brands or take a chance on Trump, just be sure to have something to keep those mosquitoes away. Because unlike the other Trump MAGA, this one deals not with society, but your own health. In light of the risks associated with mosquitoes these days, you can never be too safe.

The Secret Behind Stress Eating And Obesity…

Mysteries are a staple in the entertainment business. Something nefarious has happened and it’s up to the hero to go through the clues and find the responsible suspect. Usually, when the answer is discovered, all the pieces are put together and eventually, the revelation is made…

(Usually with an all-knowing smirk…)

Mysteries are also a major part of scientific research. Large, scoping questions are asked and over years, clues are revealed through the tireless work of labs all over the world. It may take decades but eventually, the answer is found and the results are shared with the world.

Of course, there are times when the answer seems to be impossible to find. Researchers are left scouring through the data in the hopes of finding something that may open up a path to discovery. But more times than not, the results offer little direction allowing hope to be replaced with…

(Stress…)

I’ve been there numerous times and one of the things I find is that when I get stressed, I tend to get hungry. Making the situation worse is that the pangs are not satiated by eating healthy food. I want something bad, fatty and sugary. It could be fish and chips, a fatty burger, or…

(A tart…)

This phenomenon, known as stress-eating, is quite common although how it happens has been, in itself, a mystery. For decades, researchers have been working with people and animal models in the hopes of finding the one mechanism – or if they are lucky the one cell type – responsible for this rather poor health choice.

Now, we may finally have an…

(Aha! moment…)

It comes in the form of a paper entitled, Microglial Inflammatory Signaling Orchestrates the Hypothalamic Immune Response to Dietary Excess and Mediates Obesity Susceptibility. You can click on the title to read the paper.

The researchers used mice to explore what happens inside the brain during what is known as diet-induced obesity. It is a well-known condition caused by a very familiar villain of health. I’m sure you’ll know it as soon as its name is revealed…

(Sorry, Moriarty…)

It’s inflammation.

When the body suffers from this ailment, immune cells drive other bodily systems to alter their function. This happens in the gut, in the blood, and yes, even in the brain. In the latter, the immune cells involved are known as…

(Microglia…)

They are the soldiers responsible for ensuring the brain is protected from infections, injury, and other invasions. These cells had been shown to be involved in increasing one’s appetite for unhealthy foods particularly when the body experiences stress.

But no one could quite figure out how or why…

The team focused on the area of the brain known to be responsible for the need to eat. It’s officially called the mediobasal hypothalamus, but is more commonly referred to as the MBH. To give you an idea of the size of this region…

(Here’s the hypothalamus…)

 

(And here is the MBH…)

The first experiments examined the concept of a loss of function. In other words, they reduced the cell’s population from this area and also prevented these cells from doing their jobs properly. As expected, both helped to reduce the urge to eat in the animals.

The next stage of the process required them to do the opposite and amp up the effects of the microglia. To do this, they created a hyper-inflammatory environment. When they did this, the mice had severe hunger issues.

These experiments were run of the mill neuroscience and little can be concluded from this information. But before you start wondering…


(When will he get to the good stuff?)

Let me tell you that we’re close to that Aha! moment.

When the microglia were hyperstimulated, something else happened. The mice became resistant to a particular chemical known to be involved in obesity and other weight-related issues. It’s called…

(Leptin…)

I know it doesn’t look like much but this little protein has a huge impact on our ability to control our weight. It helps to control how happy we are with the nutrients inside us.

But if we lose out on the ability to respond to leptin, a condition called resistance, a rather vicious cycle occurs. We tend to eat more sugary and fatty foods in order to feel full. But since we can’t sense that fullness, we continue to eat. Put it this way…

(Leptin resistance is bad…)

In this experiment, the researchers had caused leptin resistance by making the microglia hyperactive. In turn, this led to the initiation of the cycle, and the mice became obese.

Now you can say Aha! or perhaps even…

(Hallelujah!)

So, to recap:

  1. Stress changes the way microglia function in the brain including the MBH;
  2. They can get overexcited and become resistant to leptin;
  3. Leptin resistance can lead to changes in energy balance & reduce the sense of fullness;
  4. This leads to an urge to eat sugary foods;
  5. This in turn eventually can lead to weight gain.

The overall results of this study do help us to solve the mystery of stress-eating (at least in mice). But the information also introduces another more intriguing question…

(Can we prevent obesity?)

Although we won’t know this for quite some time, the clock may already be ticking in this direction. When the researchers took out the microglia, they used a drug called PLX5622. It’s being tested in clinical trials to manage arthritis. With these results in hand, the drug may be given further examination to see whether it may be able to help calm down the microglia and possibly control stress eating.

But that is for the future. In the meantime, when we feel stressed and find ourselves stricken with the munchies, just realize we may not to blame. Based on this study, it may be just our microglia forcing us to think and act this way. With more research, we may be able one day to find ways to reduce the stress we feel and reduce the chances for obesity.

In the meantime, if you want to avoid stress eating, the best way to achieve this may be to find at least a few moments during the day when you can exist is the state known to reduce the hunger…

(Calm…)

The Unexpected Taste Of Pure, Pure Water…

In order to survive, almost all life forms require water to live. There are some exceptions, like bacterial spores, some worms, and the most fascinating creature of all…

(The Tardigrade!)

For humans, drinking water may seem to be a rather inert process. We drink, we become hydrated, and we’re good to go. But have you ever taken the time to notice the taste of water?

It may seem odd at first but when you think about it, every water source has a different effect on our tongues. In some circles, the taste of water can determine its quality. There are even, believe it or not…

(Water Sommeliers…)

The key to a good water lies in the content within. Salts, minerals, and other components all add to the flavour of that clear solution. Depending on the concentrations, your tongue will be greeted with a different sensation, which provides your brain with either pleasure or unhappiness.

But what about pure water? Would you think it has a taste?

I’ve tried it myself and I have to admit, I was shocked when I noticed my tongue reacting to the liquid combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Back then, I had no idea what was happening. But now it seems the mechanism behind that taste has been identified.

The answer comes to us in the form of an article entitled, The cellular mechanism for water detection in the mammalian taste system. If you click on the title, you should be directed to a free PDF. If not, I apologize.

The researchers set out to figure out how our tongues perceive the taste of water. As you might expect, they believed the answer lied in the taste buds. If you’ve never seen one at the molecular level, here’s what it looks like…

(Pretty, don’t you think?)

The key to taste is found on the surface of those cells wrapped up in the ball. They are called taste receptor cells, or TRCs. They can sense all five tastes – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami – and relay that information to the brain.

The team decided to take a look at these cells and the molecules that determine the various tastes, aptly called taste receptors, in the hopes of finding any that would react to pure water. Eventually, they did. The TRCs responded the same way we respond to…

(Acids…)

You’re probably wondering how something that is completely pure and devoid of any acids – or bases for that matter – might trigger an acid response. The researchers did too. The answer came in the form of another normal process we all perform but think very little about…

(Exhaling…)

When we breathe out, we are sending out carbon dioxide into the air. But not all of it goes into the atmosphere. Some of the TRCs will actually grab on to the molecule and mix it with the water in our mouths. The end result is another product we all know quite well but don’t consider to be part of our bodies…

(Bicarbonate…)

This natural base keeps the TRCs prepped for anything acidic that might be considered toxic or noxious. Many possible substances apply in this case although one I had hoped would fit into this category does not…

(But I digress…)

When pure water enters the taste bud area, a dilution effect occurs. The bicarbonate is removed from the area and the TRCs recognize this as the arrival of an acid.

Here’s where it gets interesting…

When the TRCs are triggered, we tend to want to drink more. It’s as if our brains want us to continue the dilution process. That makes sense as water does offer the chance to clear out mouths and reset the balance.

But this has no effect on our sensation of dehydration or the feeling of being full due to water. This is controlled by another system in the body related to stress. In other words, while these TRCs may help us drink a little more, they are not responsible for…

(You get the idea…)

With this in hand, here’s a little experiment for you to try.

When you next decide to take a sip of water, take a moment to decide if first you can taste it. Do you have a slightly acidic feeling on your tongue? If so, what does it bring to your mind?

Next, see if you can just have just that one sip alone. Do you need more right after? You may find yourself having to go back to the glass or bottle for some more dilution to feel happy.

Finally, when you are finished drinking the total volume, try to discern a taste. Is it different from when you took your first sip? Can you sense the dilution effect?

If you decide to perform the experiment, let me know and share the results in the comments.

Is Social Media Making You Depressed?

Based on all the hype over social media, most people may think logging on is the equivalent of saying…

(A world of opportunities…)

But last month, a study came out that suggests hopping on to the information highway may have a very different result. Instead of finding joy, the researchers suggest we may be making ourselves…

(You get the emoticon idea…)

The paper is entitled, The happiness paradox: your friends are happier than you and it appears in the journal, European Physical Journal Data Science. While the article is a great read, the overall outcome of this report reveals social media – or at least Twitter – is not a reflection of a democratic society. Rather, it is more like another environment all of us have encountered at one time or another…

(High School…)

Anyone who has walked these halls knows amid the goals of education, life learning, and of course, doing well on exams, there is another mission for many a student. We can call it striving interpersonal relationship success, seeking widespread esteem, or developing a cult of personality. But most people tend to call it…

(A Popularity Contest…)

Much like high school, if you are not popular on social media, then you may be ‘missing out’ on the events and activities others may be experiencing. You may also find a lack of interaction leads to a reduction in self-esteem and self-worth. If things get really bad, you may sink into a quasi-depressive state.

But this isn’t the worst of the situation. In high school, the interaction within the population lasts only about six hours a day and is interrupted by classes. On social media, this effect can be continuous. By seeing the experiences of other individuals and comparing them to yours, you may be amplifying the effect and worsening the potential for…

(Mental Health Concerns…)

From a social perspective, this paper probably makes quite a bit of sense. But mechanistically speaking, there is little information to help us understand why this effect happens.

Thankfully, the answer was found some seven years ago in a paper entitled, A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind, which was published in the journal, Science.

The study was simple in that the researchers contacted 2250 adults at random times and asked them a series of questions beginning with their state of happiness. With that in place, they asked about what the individual was doing at that moment, whether the mind was wandering, and if so, on what imagery.

When the results came back, the team discovered a wandering mind was in a way similar to what is commonly associated with idle hands…

 (They do the devil’s work…)

Almost half the people contacted were suffering from a wandering mind. When they were asked about the nature of the wandering, most were thinking of pleasant topics while only about a quarter were thinking of unpleasant situations. As one might expect, the latter group were not feeling altogether happy. But even those who were thinking of pleasing situations were also not any happier.

I admit, after I read this, I was probably thinking the same thing as you…

(It makes no sense…)

But when you think about it, those who were wandering to pleasant thoughts were trying to get away from an unpleasant reality. They were not happy to begin with and no amount of daydreaming would help.

As for those thinking unpleasant thoughts, it seemed to be a consequence of a lack of focused action. They were either bored or doing something that required little focus, such as watching television, doing errands, commuting, or trying to keep themselves busy by…

(I’m sure you guessed this already…)

This develops a vicious cycle in which a combination of a lack of focus and low popularity on social media lead a person down a rather unfortunate path of even more unpleasant thoughts.

The best way to avoid all this trouble is to give yourself the opportunity to get away from the contests and the lack of focus. This could come in the form of a good book, a compelling movie or television series, a hobby, skill, or exercise.

There’s also one other activity some may considering. It was found by the researchers in the second study to cause the least amount of mind wandering…

 (If you don’t get this, Google, “The Newlywed Game”)

 

 

Consider The Conceit Behind The Concept…

When I wrote The Germ Files I had one goal in mind. I wanted readers to better understand the role of microbes in their lives and in their health. In doing so, I avoided using the names of specific species unless it was warranted. Instead, I grouped the hundreds to thousands of species found in and on our bodies into three major groups.

  • Friends
  • Foes
  • Bystanders

As I’ve learned, this strategy was quite effective as it kept the focus on the information, mechanisms, and any relevant advice I shared.

I also made it very clear this book was composed for all audiences, not just those in the scientific community. This was not a 300 page academic paper. Although the statements were based on over a thousand scientific articles – and some of my own research – I had no intention of regurgitating the information. Doing so would have put me into a corner and limited the reach of my message.

If you haven’t read the book yet, I invite you to pick it up and give it a read because it will help to understand what I am about to discuss.

Last week, a paper came out in the journal PLoS ONE entitled: Microbiome restoration diet improves digestion, cognition and physical and emotional wellbeing. As you might expect, this initially caught my eye as it appeared to parallel what I like to call the “good germs friendly diet” I discuss in my book. I was anxious to give it a read.

The concept appeared to be relatively straightforward. A group of 21 volunteers underwent a month-long diet called The Gut Makeover. The paper outlined the diet, which involved the following steps:

  • Three main meals each day with no snacks between;
  • Nothing between dinner and breakfast;
  • Five cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit;
  • Add some protein;
  • Keep the plants varied between 20 and 30 over the course of a week;
  • At least 20 chews per bite
  • Use virgin olive oil and coconut oil as the base for any cooking

As for the restrictions, there were quite a few including refined sugars, grains, alcohol, caffeine, and dairy products.

At this point, the diet seemed to be similar to almost all diets out there. Nothing seemed to be unique.

The difference involved the inclusion of fermented and prebiotic foods after the second week. This included kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, and miso on the fermented side and a variety of fibre-filled vegetables and fruit as prebiotics.

Once I had arrived at this, I had mixed feelings. All of these recommendations are part of a “good germs friendly diet.” Most also can be found in the best diet for our microbes, the Mediterranean diet. But as this was a “microbiome restoration” plan, I figured there would be some good news to come.

I was wrong.

As the title implies, many of the people who undertook the diet did lose weight and had improved physical and emotional well-being. That wasn’t so bad. What truly disappointed me was the lack of any experiments examining the nature of the microbial population in the gut. Considering the title of the document I figured there might be at least some evidence to show restoration had occurred. Yet there was nothing.

This paper clearly demonstrates the problem with what I like to call conceit.

The article was presented in a manner to convince readers the diet would improve one’s microbial population. One month of dieting would restore the number of friends and bystanders while reducing the number of foes. Yet, there was no experimental evidence to prove this transition occurred.

Which brings me to the most important question this paper didn’t answer:  Did the diet really restore the microbial balance? If you have read The Germ Files, you’ll realize the answer is no. Based on several experiments examining the components of this diet, these are the most likely mechanisms.

  • The caloric restrictions would have led to a reduction in proteins known to form fat;
  • The use of fibre would have led to an increase in intestinal bile and decreased cholesterol;
  • The lack of sugars would have led to increased fat oxidation and adipose tissue loss;
  • The polyunsaturated fats would reduce inflammation;
  • The polyphenols in vegetables and fruit would have helped to balance immune function;
  • The addition of fermented foods would have a short term beneficial impact on health.

As for the microbes? Most of these dietary components are anti-foe and pro-friends/bystanders. So one might expect a microbial shift during the change in eating habits. But unless an individual continues this regimen nonstop, the alteration is temporary. Within as little as three days, the foes would most likely return.

Being able to identify the conceit behind the concept is important because it will help gain a grasp on the real message instead of the one being presented.

This paper is only one example – although probably one of the most obvious I’ve seen in a while – of many we see both in the academic literature and on store shelves. Figuring out which are valid and which are not worth the effort can be difficult.

What I can tell you is that when I write, I concentrate on clarity, not conceit.

I want readers to understand the information in a way that makes sense with as little questions as possible. Those of you who have read my books will appreciate what I am saying. If you haven’t had the chance, I hope you give it a shot.

Finally, I usually don’t market my works as I let them stand for themselves and let the clicks and sales happen naturally. But when I see an article such as this diet paper appear in the literature and subsequently gain public attention, I feel the need to offer an alternative. If my words help to keep people from doubting the influence of microbes in our lives and the microbiologists who study them, I believe it’s well worth taking the risk of being called a conceited self-promoter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Putting the Poo in Swimming Pools…

Over the last few years, as summer approaches, I tend to receive requests to talk about a phenomenon that might make even the nastiest person go…

(Sorry, Dr. Evil…)

I’m talking, of course, about fecal matter in swimming pools.

I’m sure you may have heard about this occurrence in the news. You may have ignored the story thinking it is another attempt to keep us in the matrix of germophobia. But in this case, the threat is real. Or, to put it another way…

(Thanks, Morpheus)

Feces in pools happens and based on some pretty convincing evidence, it’s more common than you might think. If you don’t believe me, may I suggest you read this wonderful article on the likelihood of finding fecal bacteria and viruses in your local swimming environment.

Assessment of Enteric Pathogen Shedding by Bathers during
Recreational Activity and its Impact on Water Quality

A Microbial Version of Fight Club…

These days, when a scientific article comes out, the title is designed to provide as much information as possible into the specific subject of the study. For those immersed in that branch of science, the words make sense. But for the rest of the population, these titles invoke a rather understandable response…

(What???)

You can’t blame the researchers. They simply are following the rules of what many call the scientific club. Researchers talk in a certain way and title their papers in a scientifically conventional manner. If you don’t follow, you don’t belong.

Unfortunately, when it comes to that wider audience, researchers understand the mere sight of a complex title can leave many thinking…

(I have made a critical mistake…)

But every now and then, someone chooses to fight this convention and come out with a title that is both wonderfully composed and easy to understand. One such article came out recently in the journal PLoS Pathogens.

The article is split into three parts. The first discusses the function of what is known as a Type VI Secretion System, or T6SS for short. It’s a group of proteins assembled together in the form of well…

(A crossbow…)

Not surprisingly, the role of T6SS – as the name implies – is to send out, or secrete, factors from inside the cell to the surrounding area. As to what these factors do, the deliver what can be best described as…

(A vicious punch…)

When a bacterium feels threatened, it uses T6SS to attack other bacterial cells in the hopes of wounding or killing the invader. The authors even provided a lovely visual description of how T6SS is used…

(I couldn’t have drawn it better myself…)

In essence, T6SS is a survival mechanism designed to help ensure bacteria maintain their territory in a diverse environment.

Which brings us to the second part of the paper, where this battle is happening…

 (The gut…)

There are potentially hundreds of different species living in our gastrointestinal tract, especially in the colon. While we might like to think they are all getting along, researchers have shown this is not the case. Instead, there are microcosms in which bacteria are…

(Facing off…)

Many of the bacteria in possession of T6SS are pathogens capable of causing diarrhea and other illnesses such as cholera. The researchers suggest the presence of T6SS gives them an advantage in our guts and can increase the likelihood of symptoms.

Now it’s time for the third part, which the authors magnificently described in the following image…

(Can you guess what is happening here?)

Let’s make this even easier to understand…

  1. The yellow bacterium is a pathogen with a T6SS in place.
  2. The blue bacterium is a friendly species, also known as a commensal.
  3. using genetic engineering, commensals can be given the ability to produce antidotes to T6SS toxins such that they can defend against attack.
  4. Using engineering to give commensals the ability to make T6SS, they also can engage in battle.

The group suggests using these genetically engineered commensal species may be useful in helping to prevent and possibly treat gastrointestinal infections. While this still is little more than a theory, considering the widespread nature of gastrointestinal bacterial infections, and the rise in antibiotic resistance, this strategy may be well worth…

(Further discussion…)

If you’ve been following along, you probably have noticed I haven’t actually given the title of the paper. I first wanted to go through the article and see if you could guess what it would be called.

Based on the science, you might think the article would be called…

“Prospective genetic engineering of commensal bacterial species
as a novel means to prevent T6SS-mediated bacterial gastroenteritis” 

But no.  Instead, the title is one of the best I have seen in a long time. It is simply and brilliantly called…

T6SS: The bacterial “fight club” in the host gut.

When it comes to scientific papers, titles are simply a collection of words designed to match a particular format. Although they may appear challenging and possibly lead you to forego reading on, just remember, the authors probably had no choice. It’s just part of the scientific club.

But, if scientists had the ability to be a little more like the authors of this paper, I can assure you they would. Because while you may think researchers are highly focused, straight-laced, thinking machines devoted to the club of science – and they are – deep inside many of them, there also lies an inner…

(Tyler Durden…)

I would suggest it’s worth going past the title and learning more about what makes these people work and well, fight, as hard as they do.

Why Spring May Tick You Off…

It’s that time of the year when the days last longer than the nights, the temperature warms, and many take a needed breath of relief. Winter has come to an end and we welcome the arrival of…

(Spring!)

From a health perspective, the change of season should signify a slowing down of the hectic pace caused by colds, flu, and other winter-associated illnesses. Yet, over the last decade, the stress has continued although the reason is far different.

Instead of the invisible bacteria and viruses causing all the trouble, another itchy subject has taken over as the public enemy Number 1…

(Ticks…)

As soon as the temperature holds steady at four degrees Celsius, these insects emerge from their hibernation and begin to forage for food. As you can imagine, after months of slumber, they are hungry for blood. They aren’t all that choosy either. If it’s filled with blood and has skin that is easy to penetrate, any animal – including a human – is fair game.

Ticks haven’t always been this troublesome as they used to be only present in woodlands and other rural areas. But they have claimed much more territory and call urban parks and other recreational gathering spaces home. How much you might ask…well, how about this…

(Don’t even ask to see the 2050 or 2080 estimates…)

Of course, the tick itself isn’t really the problem. Much like the mosquito, an invasion is little more than a nuisance that can quickly be remedied. But, inside many of these crawlers are microbes known to cause over a dozen different types of infections.

You may not have heard of some of the pathogens, such as Babesia, which causes anemia, or Powassan virus, which can cause fatal encephalitis. But I’m sure by now you know about the most common worry…

(Needless to say, it’s horrid…)

The mere threat of acquiring one of these infections may be enough to convince you to keep that bare skin covered or use insect repellents containing DEET. Yet, if this concern is not enough to take precautions, perhaps this might offer a good enough reason to keep these insects away…

(Welcome to the microscopic world…)

What you are looking at are the chelicerae (pronounced keh-lees-er-ay) of the tick. If you haven’t guessed what this particular appendage happens to accomplish, you might want to watch a certain video showing what it does. But before I show it, I have two quick notes.

First, this footage was made as a part of a scientific article examining how ticks actually manage to get into the skin. You can read it here:  How ticks get under your skin: insertion mechanics of the feeding apparatus of Ixodes ricinus ticks.

Second, if you happen to be squeamish in any way, you might want to forego watching the video. Although i find it fascinating, some people might consider it a little too um, well…

 (You get the idea…)

If you’re still willing, here’s the video in its entirety. It lasts for a few minutes but for those of you who really want to know how a tick begins its journey into the body, it’s worth the time.

 

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