The Germ Guy: Confessions of a Mercurial Microbiologist



Are Electronics Out To Infect Us?

There’s been a trend of late to highlight how everyday objects are covered in germs. Usually, the stories have been fun in nature to point out the reality we all face…

germs-eveywhere(Sorry, Woody)

Yet, in the last few years, the tone has changed dramatically. Messages are no longer having fun with microbial ubiquity. Instead, they are attempting to instill a different emotion…

fearBe afraid…be very afraid!

The latest installment of this trend, which I like to call the “What Is Trying To Infect Me,” series, focuses on electronics. The study, a term I use lightly, was commissioned by an online information technology training group called CBT Nuggets. They wanted to find out just how many bacteria can be found on a variety of different objects.

As you might expect, the results are shocking! Electronics are covered in germs…

culkin(Sorry, Macaulay)

To give you an idea of just how many germs can be found, here’s one of the infographics from the study…


(That’s quite a bit of work!)

Granted, for some – or hopefully all – of you, this information is not surprising. After all, we know microbes are going to find their way onto surfaces. That’s just part of our everyday life.

But to really hit home the concern, the team went on to discuss what types of bacteria were found and what they could possibly do to us…

(Pretty scary, right?)

For the most part, this part of the study isn’t too far off the usual method. You swab, count the number of bacteria, and identify the types under a microscope. So far so good. The next step would then be to identify the different species and determine their potential for causing infection.

That, however, didn’t happen…

picard2(Sorry, Jean-Luc)

Instead, the team simply assumed the presence of a bacterial type implied a health threat. In essence, a Gram Positive Coccus on a surface warned of an impending skin infection or pneumonia.

As any health-related microbiologist will tell you…

wrong(You tell ’em, kitty!)

When it comes to microbes, only about 0.1% of the species we know are capable of causing infection. Of those, you may only come into contact with a few dozen. The rest are harmless and pose absolutely no threat to your health.

All this being said, I can understand the reason a group like CBT Nuggets would undertake this effort. They want people to clean their electronic equipment and more importantly, their hands. That is indeed a valiant effort. But to conduct a study like this is simply not effective and may end up backfiring in a most undesirable way…

chan(Sorry, Jackie)

If you are going to conduct a study like this, be sure to have some Latin thrown in, like Pseudomonas, Staphylococcus, Bacillus, and yes, even Escherichia. Once you’ve done that, then you can provide perspective on the risks to health. For me, this study misses the mark for that lack of clarity.

But that’s not the only reason it made me more upset than Jean-Luc and Jackie. If the team wanted to convey a true risk associated with electronics, they would have studied not bacteria but…

sneeze(Respiratory viruses)

These infectious agents are easily shed onto phones, pads, and keyboards by coughing and sneezing. They can survive for hours allowing them to be picked up by fingers and eventually transferred to the nose or mouth by touching. They are the perfect reason to clean those devices and your hands regularly.

Regardless of what I have to say, I’m sure people will take an interest with this study. I just hope they won’t take the threat seriously. If you want to read the entire CBT Nuggets story, you can find it here: Bytes and Bacteria: Exposing the Germs on your Technology | CBT Nuggets


Homeopathy: To Test or Not To Test…

There’s quite a debate going on in the scientific community these days. The topic happens to be whether a rather controversial clinical trial should take place.

At first, this deliberation might seem odd, considering all evidence these days is benchmarked on clinical trials. Yet the actual test agent for the study is something that, shall we say, is a little…


It’s about a vaccine, which probably doesn’t sound all that troublesome. But when you think about the nature of the vaccine, you might appreciate why this is such a hot topic…

homeopathybanner3It’s homeopathic…

For those who don’t know, homeopathy is essentially a practice of dilution. A particular chemical, such as a plant chemical or a microbial toxin, is diluted, usually in a combination of water and alcohol.

This probably doesn’t sound all that controversial. But when you think about the actual amount of dilution that occurs…

dilutionsThere’s a reason to be skeptical…

You might think this one fact might derail the entire concept of homeopathy. But according to many believers, this concept of ultra-dilution is actually a goal. For them, the more dilute the chemical, the more potent it gets.

potencyEssentially, less means more…

The concept of a stronger pill with less medication may seem counter-productive. Yet in some areas of homeopathy, this is desired. Some practitioners wish to have all the medication removed through dilution. For them, the real activity comes not from the chemical but rather…

waterThe Memory of Water…

This is perhaps the most ludicrous aspect of the homeopathy assumptions. Mind you, there is some science behind this notion. We know water can change its shape based on the presence of a chemical. But, as soon as that object is removed, say through dilution, the water returns to its normal behaviour within milliseconds…

(Liquid has a very short memory.)

So, with all this in mind, it’s not surprising the response of many people upon learning there is a proposed homeopathy vaccine trial was…

noMind you, they are not the Clinical Trials regulator…

As a result, the trial is still going to happen. If you wish to read about it you can find the information here: Homeopathic Vaccine Trial

In terms of the debate, one can understand why the idea of allowing this trial to go ahead may seem like a waste of time and money. As some have said, this also may lend undue credibility to homeopathy. For those fully in the duck-adjective corner, this trial simply should not happen.

On the other hand, there are people who rely on clinical trials to be able to provide information to the public. Granted, in the case of homeopathy, there are more than enough reasons to doubt its effectiveness. Yet, having that clinical trial data would be incredible helpful and add strength to the messaging.

There is, however, one slight risk going through with the trial…

rightWhat if Homeopathy Does Work?

It’s a valid question even though we pretty much know the answer. Yet, as any good scientist will tell you, one must be ready for this possible outcome.

While I feel there will be absolutely no positive results from this clinical trial, I have put together a few possible reasons to explain why the hypothesis – homeopathy doesn’t work – could be wrong.

The first is called the Kirkwood-Buff Theory and it uses not mathematics, but thermodynamics to explain how chemicals react at very high dilutions. As the dilution gets higher, chemicals tend to aggregate together at the atomic level. They cannot be seen or detected using standard methods but they are there. How this theory works is incredibly complex but if you wish to read about it, you can find an excellent article here: Kirkwood-Buff Theory.

The second is the observation of this theory in action. When certain chemical composites are put into saline solutions, they tend to leach into the solution in incredibly small quantities. You can see them using biophysical techniques such as infrared spectroscopy. But, if you use visual techniques, such as electron microscopy, you see nothing. You can read more about this phenomenon here: Composite Materials and Saline Extracts.

Finally, there is norovirus. As little as one of these infectious villains can send us for a three day trip down the rabbit hole…

toilet(Make that Toilet Bowl)

Considering the dilution effect of food, water, and then the actual harsh conditions of the gastrointestinal tract, infection should be impossible. Yet it still occurs.

As you might expect, I’m looking forward to the clinical trial and the results. For me, at least, there will be some evidence to provide comment. Of course, whatever the results end up being, there is a good likelihood the debate over this controversial practice won’t end. Homeopathy has been around for hundreds of years. It’s doubtful one clinical trial is going to put an end – or alternatively raise its credibility – to any great extent.

What do you think of the clinical trial? Do you feel it should go ahead? Let me know your thoughts…

Making Microscopy Available For The Masses…

This week has been a hectic one as the lecture season has begun. Most of the time, I’m giving keynotes or plenary presentations at conferences. But every now and then I have the chance to appear at a library or a school. I always enjoy these opportunities because I get the chance to talk to…

Portrait of happy kids, smiling, outdoors

Let me tell you, when children are in the audience, I’m always sure to see a raised hand when I ask a question. They are always engaged and enjoy the feeling of participation.

But there is a slight caveat. No matter how much I try to explain the physical aspects of germs, words are simply not enough. The kids want to see as well as hear. Granted, I could use slides but even then, it’s still an abstract photo. To really get a good perspective on the size, shape and movement of microbes…

kid-scopeYou need a microscope.

It’s not easy, however, to achieve this, particularly when you’re talking in an auditorium or gym hall. It takes time to get a scope properly prepared and then, allowing everyone the chance to actually see the microbes can be a logistics nightmare. If you don’t believe me…

santaJust ask Santa!

But last week, a possible solution was published in the journal PLOS One. A group of scientists figured out how to make a microscope with believe it or not…

A smartphone!

They call it the LudusScope. Rather than explaining the name, I’ll simply quote what is in the text of the article.

“We call this open-source platform the LudusScope, as the Latin term “ludus” refers to “play/game” as well as “(elementary) school”; embracing a historical perspective on how playfulness and learning are intertwined.”

The concept is brilliant but what makes this even more amazing is the relative simplicity of design. The authors suggest you can do it yourself…

scope-partsAlthough a kit may be better…

What makes LudusScope even better is the portability. Once everything is in place, it’s still incredibly small…

scope3(The authors blurred the faces)

The authors developed this microscopy to engaged a variety of learning skills including as they state: observation, exploration, data collection, and hypothesis testing. As you might guess, when they tested their theory, they were met with success.

But in terms of science awareness in the public, this system may one day allow kids – and adults – gain a deeper understanding of microbes. By linking up the smartphone to a projector, an entire audience may be able to see the wonders of the microscopic world. They may even be able to say…

now-i-get-it(This was too cute to omit)

At the moment, the LudusScope is still in the development stage. But once it become available, it may be help teachers, lecturers, and yes, even Germ Guys, provide a glimpse into the microbial world once impossible to provide.

If you want to read the entire paper, you can find it here:
PLOS ONE: LudusScope: Accessible Interactive Smartphone Microscopy for Life-Science Education

#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:

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…


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:

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…

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:

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:

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!)


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:

If you happen to have access to journal articles, you can read the scientific paper here:

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…


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…

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…


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…



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!

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