Last week, I linked you to a piece pointing out that three New York Times
op-ed pieces linking bacterial exposure (or lack thereof) to autism, celiac disease, and allergies were all written by the same guy
, Moises Velasquez-Manoff. His ideas are interesting, but there's also good reason to be skeptical. If you want to get a better idea of the arguments for and against Velasquez-Manoff's thesis, I'd recommend checking out this post at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker
, which links to several critical stories and to Velasquez-Manoff's response to them. — Maggie
Tonight at 10:00 Eastern/9:00 Central, PBS Frontline will air a documentary about the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I got a chance to see a preview of the show, and it's definitely interesting, including details I wasn't previously aware of, despite having written about this topic before. Particularly interesting: An emphasis on naturally occurring gene transfer between different species of bacteria, which is allowing antibiotic resistance to spread at an alarmingly quick rate. I had also not realized that antibiotic-resistant bacteria probably kill more Americans every year than AIDS — "probably", because nobody is required to actually track and report this stuff. Your local hospital could be in the midst of a serious outbreak of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and, unless they choose to voluntarily release that information, you might never know.
Whether or not you get a chance to watch the documentary tonight, we hope you'll join us here tomorrow for a live chat session with the producers and a doctor who specializes in treating patients with antibiotic-resistant infections. That starts at noon Eastern/11:00 central, and will be moderated by either me or Rob. We've got some questions we're looking forward to addressing with the panel, and we hope you'll bring in some great questions, too. The first half of the chat will focus on the documentary. The second half will be aimed more at a practical understanding of what you can actually do to protect yourself, your family, and your community.
At The Verge, Carrie Arnold writes about a scientist who thinks that our intestinal bacteria could have an influence on mental health
. It's not proven, but it's not a totally crazy idea, either, and there's some good evidence supporting the connection. The catch: Even if what's happening in your gut affects what is happening in your head, there might not be much we can do change the mental health outcomes. — Maggie
Bacteria are becoming resistant to one of the last classes of antibiotics available
to treat them, writes Maryn McKenna at Nature. Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae are a family of lung, blood, and bladder infections that can turn horribly deadly. Meanwhile, at Scientific American, Charles Q. Choi writes about other scientists looking for ways to turn bacteria against one another, unleashing predatory microbes
that can destroy drug-resistant bacteria. — Maggie
Our great, collective, ongoing realization that wiping out all the bacteria in our bodies may not actually be a great idea marches on. At Scientific American, Deborah Franklin writes about chronic halitosis — the sort of bad breath that doesn't go away with a simple brushing — and scientists' efforts to cure it by encouraging the growth of some mouth bacteria
, instead of pouring Listerine on everything and letting God sort it out. — Maggie
David Goodsell of the Scripps Research Institute made this lovely watercolor illustration of a cell of Mycoplasma mycoides. This bacterium is the cause of a deadly respiratory disease that affects cattle and other cud-chewing animals.
If you've ever read much about zoonoses — diseases that pass from animals to humans — then you know that the domestication of livestock played a huge role in introducing many diseases to people. Living in close proximity to the animals we ate provided ample opportunities for those animals' diseases to jump over to us. What's interesting about Mycoplasma mycoides is that it represents a disease of animals that seems to have its origins in domestication, as well.
In 2012, scientists found evidence that suggests domesticating livestock — a process that resulted in closer living conditions for the animals and in animals from one herd being moved to other herds they likely wouldn't have otherwise had contact with — helped Mycoplasma mycoides evolve and spread. Today, different species of Mycoplasma mycoides cause a range of diseases that can kill between 10 and 70 percent of the cows they infect.
Goodsell's illustration is an attempt to show all the different parts of the bacterial cell, in the shapes, sizes, locations, and concentrations that those parts take in the real world. If you go to his site, you can see a legend explaining what everything is.
Given the ongoing outbreak of H7N9 flu in China (and, now, also Taiwan), this is a good time to listen to a fascinating podcast discussion with David Quammen
. Quammen recently published a FANTASTIC book, Spillover
, about zoonoses — the diseases that humans contract from animals. This includes bird flus like H7N9. It also includes AIDS and a whole host of familiar viruses and bacteria. Bonus: Scary disease girl Maryn McKenna has a cameo in the podcast, discussing the way news media (in China and the US) are covering H7N9 and what you can do to better understand what's happening
. — Maggie
How scientists study the fossils of ancient bacteria to find clues to a 2.6-million-year-old supernovae
. Jennifer Ouellette explains how the the bacteria incorporated elements from an exploding star into their bodies, and how those elements can still be found today. — Maggie
This morning, Marketplace Tech Report had a story on a new cellulose-based building material that could be made by genetically engineered bacteria — altered versions of the bacteria that naturally make stuff like kombucha. This tech sounds like it's got a long way to go from laboratory to the real world, but if they can perfect the process and make it large enough quantities, what you'd end up with a strong, inexpensive goop that could be used to build everything from medical dressings, to digital paper, to spaceships. Yes, you could theoretically use this stuff to make rocket casings, according to R. Malcolm Brown, Jr.
, a professor of cell biology at UT Austin. And if you can build a rocket from this stuff, you could also break the same material back down into an edible, high-fiber foodstuff. — Maggie
Let's just play this safe and assume that, until more samples have been collected and detailed DNA analysis has been done, the real answer to the question, "Is bacteria found in Antarctica's Lake Vostok
actually new to science or just contamination from the drilling?" is "We don't really know."
This is a great example of why making scientific pronouncements from the field, before you've had time to do the really in-depth analysis that goes into writing a peer-reviewed research paper, can be problematic. Right now, you've got different camps of researchers making totally contradictory claims. Who is right is, so far, anybody's guess. — Maggie
"You can say anything you want in a press release". Sadly, that sentiment is too true. Turns out, recent reports of the discovery of previously unknown bacteria in samples hauled up from the waters of Antarctica's frozen Lake Vostok have turned out to be premature. The bacteria turned out to be contaminants carried by the drilling and collection apparatus
. At Scientific American, Elizabeth Howell talks about this flub in the context of other stories where scientists bypassed peer review and announced findings to the newspapers first. — Maggie
“It appears that there lies a large wetland ecosystem under Antarctica’s ice sheet, with an active microbiology.” — There's some really exciting news coming from the land at the bottom of the world
. — Maggie
In 2010, a group of scientists claimed to have found bacteria that could build its DNA using arsenic, instead of the phosphorous used by the rest of Earth's life forms. Within days, the research behind "arsenic life" was under serious scrutiny and we now know that it was totally wrong. But the work was peer-reviewed. It was sponsored by NASA. How do so many experts make such a big mistake?
Dan Vergano at USA Today has an excellent article looking at just that — and it includes the peer review comments that helped the arsenic life paper get published. Though normally secret, Vergano got a hold of them through a Freedom of Information Act request. — Maggie
Everybody poops, including panda bears. (See about 0:35 in the above video for evidence.) But panda poop could turn out to be quite a bit more important than your average animal excrement. That's because scientists are "mining" it for bacteria that could help make better biofuel.
The key problem with biofuel today is that the stuff that's actually economical to produce — i.e., corn ethanol — isn't really that great for the environment. Corn farming uses a lot of fertilizer, water, and herbicide. Using corn that was previously grown for food to make fuel, instead, can lead to deforestation as people clear land to make up for the lost food farming. Some models of carbon dioxide emissions suggest that, by the time you factor in things like fossil-fuel derived fertilizers and the deforestation, a gallon of corn ethanol might not be any better for climate change than a gallon of gasoline. Not all the models agree on that. But even if corn ethanol produces fewer carbon emissions than gas, you still have to deal with the fact that growing nutrient-hungry corn on the same patch of ground over and over and over is really bad for local soil and water quality.
Cellulosic ethanol could be a much better alternative — particularly cellulosic ethanol made from native, perennial plants that don't require heavy inputs to thrive and actually improve the health of the land they're grown on. The problem: Converting those plants into fuel is, so far, a lot more expensive. Cellulose — the plant fiber that makes up things like stalks of bamboo and tall prairie grasses — is tough stuff and hard to break down.
That's where panda poop comes in. Pandas process tons of cellulose every day, right in their guts. Maybe the bacteria that work for them could work for us, too.
Read more about this research at Chemical and Engineering News
Technology Review's list of 35 Innovators Under 35 includes Timothy Lu
, an MIT researcher who is engineering viruses designed to seek out and destroy biofilms — bacterial colonies that stick together on a surface, like bits of pear suspended in the world's most disgusting jell-o salad. Biofilms have been implicated in human disease
, especially chronic infections like those that can happen in the urinary tract and inner ear. But the first place Lu's biofilm-eating viruses will likely be put to work is cleaning out ducts in industrial HVAC systems. (Via Carl Zimmer) — Maggie