Posts about microbes

We are Not Us Without The Microbes Within Us

I Contain Multitudes is a wonderful book by Ed Young on the microbes within us.

Time and again, bacteria and other microbes have allowed animals to transcend their basic animalness and wheedle their way into ecological nooks and crannies that would be otherwise inaccessible; to settle into lifestyles that would be otherwise intolerable; to eat what they could not otherwise stomach; to succeed against their fundamental nature. And the most extreme examples of this mutual assured success can be found in the deep oceans, where some microbes supplement their hosts to such a degree that the animals can eat the most impoverished diets of all – nothing.

This is another book exploring the wonders of biology and the complexity of the interaction between animals and microbes.

For hundreds of years, doctors have used dioxin to treat people whose hearts are failing. The drug – a modified version of a chemical from foxglove plants – makes the heart beat more strongly, slowly, and regularly. Or, at least, that’s what it usually does. In one patient out of every ten, digoxin doesnt’ work. Its downfall is a gut bacterium called Eggerthella lenta, which converts the drug to an inactive and medically useless form. Only some strains of E. lenta do this.

The complex interactions within us are constantly at work helping us and occasionally causing problems. This obviously creates enormous challenges in health care and research on human health. See related posts: Introduction to Fractional Factorial Designed Experiments, “Grapefruit Juice Bugs” – A New Term for a Surprisingly Common Type of Surprising Bugs and 200,000 People Die Every Year in Europe from Adverse Drug Effects – How Can We Improve?.

Every person aerosolized around 37 million bacteria per hour. This means that our microbiome isn’t confined to our bodies. It perpetually reaches out into our environment.

Avoiding bacteria is not feasible. Our bodies have evolved with this constant interaction with bacteria for millions of years. When we are healthy bacteria have footholds that make it difficult for other bacteria to gain a foothold (as does our immune system fighting off those bacteria it doesn’t recognize or that it recognized as something to fight).

A few pages later he discusses the problem of hospital rooms that were constantly cleaned to kill bacteria and largely sealed to reduce airflow. What happened is those bacteria the sick people had in them were the bacteria that were flourishing (the number of other bacteria to compete for space was small). Opening the windows to welcome the outside air resulted in better results.

Outdoors, the air was full of harmless microbes from plants and soils. Indoors, it contained a disproportionate number of potential pathogens, which are normally rare or absent in the outside world

Human health is a fascinating topic. It is true antibiotics have provided us great tools in the service of human health. But we have resorted to that “hammer” far too often. And the consequences of doing so is not understood. We need those scientists exploring the complex interactions we contain to continue their great work.

Related: People are Superorganisms With Microbiomes of Thousands of Species (2013)Bacteria are Always Living in Our Bodies (2014)Gut Bacteria Explored as Medical Treatment – even for Cancer

MudWatt: Make Power From Mud!

Keegan Cooke and Kevin Rand created MudWatt kits as a way to engage kids/students with science. From the website:

We want to show kids this brighter side of STEM, to empower them to become the great problem solvers of tomorrow. Because let’s face it, there are plenty of problems in the world that need solving.

Unfortunately, our experience in school wasn’t unique. In 2011, less than one-third of 8th graders in the U.S. were deemed proficient in science. Today, 70% of the fastest growing careers are in STEM fields. The supply of STEM education is not meeting the demand.

Most of the world’s mud contain microbes that produce electricity when they eat. That is the engine driving the MudWatt. Colonies of special bacteria (called shewanella and geobacter) generate the electricity in a MudWatt.

The electricity output is proportional to the health and activity of that bacterial colony. By maintaining these colonies in different ways, you can use MudWatt to run all kinds of great experiments. Thus the MudWatt allows kids to engage with science, using their natural curiosity to experiment and learn. Engaging this too-often-neglected human potential will bring joy to those kids (as kids and as grown-ups) and benefit our society.

With standard topsoils, typical power levels are around 100 microWatts, which is enough to power the LED, buzzer, clock, etc..

Related: Arduino, open source hardware (Introduction Video Tutorial)Teaching Through TinkeringAwesome Gifts for the Maker in Your LifeQubits Construction Toy

CDC Again Stresses Urgent Need to Adjust Practices or Pay a Steep Price

Untreatable and hard-to-treat infections from Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) germs are on the rise among patients in medical facilities. CRE germs have become resistant to all or nearly all the antibiotics we have today. Types of CRE include Klebsiella pneumoniae Carbapenemase (KPC) and New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase (NDM). By following the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, we can slow the penetration of CRE infections in hospitals and other medical facilities and potentially spread to otherwise healthy people outside of medical facilities.

The CDC has worked with hospitals to successfully apply these measures. The CDC worked with Florida to stop a year-long CRE outbreak in a long-term acute care hospital. With the improved use of CDC recommendations (such as educating staff; dedicating staff, rooms, and equipment to patients with CRE; and improving use of gloves and gowns) the percentage of patients who got CRE at the facility dropped from 44% to 0.

One travesty has been how poorly health care professionals have been about prescribe antibiotics wisely We need to improve and follow CDC antibiotics guidelines (stop the overuse of antibiotics) and use culture results (for patients undergoing treatment) to modify prescriptions, if needed. Antibiotic overuse contributes to the growing problems of Clostridium difficile (c-diff) infection and antibiotic resistance in healthcare facilities. Studies indicate that nearly 50% of antimicrobial use in hospitals is unnecessary or inappropriate (per CDC web site).

Israel decreased CRE infection rates in all 27 of its hospitals by more than 70% in one year with a coordinated prevention program. The USA is at a critical time in which CRE infections could be controlled if addressed in a rapid, coordinated, and consistent effort by doctors, nurses, lab staff, medical facility leadership, health departments/states, policy makers, and the federal government.

As I have been saying for years the damage we are creating due to our actions around the use and abuse of antibiotics is likely to kill tens of thousands, or more people. Because the deaths are delayed and often not dramatic we have continued dangerous practices for years when we know better. It is a shame we are condemning so many to increased risks. The CDC, and others, are doing good work, unfortunately too much bad work is continuing in the face of evidence of how dangerous that is.

Related: CDC Urges Increased Effort to Reduce Drug-Resistant Infections (2006)Key scientific articles on Healthcare Associated Infections via CDCOur Dangerous Antibiotic Practices Carry Great RisksDangerous Drug-Resistant Strains of TB are a Growing Threat

People are Superorganisms With Microbiomes of Thousands of Species

In a recent article in National Geographic Carl Zimmer has again done a good job of explaining the complex interaction between our bodies and the bacteria and microbes that make us sick, and keep us healthy.

The damage done by our indiscriminate use of antibiotics is not just the long term resistance that we create in bacteria (making the future more dangerous for people) that I have written about numerous times but it also endangers the person taking the anti-biotics in the short term. Sometimes the other damage is a tradeoff that should be accepted. But far too often we ignore the damage taking antibiotics too often does.

When You Swallow A Grenade

While antibiotics can discriminate between us and them, however, they can’t discriminate between them and them–between the bacteria that are making us sick and then ones we carry when we’re healthy. When we take a pill of vancomycin, it’s like swallowing a grenade. It may kill our enemy, but it kills a lot of bystanders, too.

If you think of the human genome as all the genes it takes to run a human body, the 20,000 protein-coding genes found in our own DNA are not enough. We are a superorganism that deploys as many as 20 million genes.

Before he started taking antibiotics, the scientists identified 41 species in a stool sample. By day 11, they only found 13. Six weeks after the antibiotics, the man was back up to 38 species. But the species he carried six weeks after the antibiotics did not represent that same kind of diversity he had before he took them. A number of major groups of bacteria were still missing.

They found that children who took antibiotics were at greater risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease later in life. The more antibiotics they took, the greater the risk. Similar studies have found a potential link to asthma as well.

The human body contains trillions of microorganisms — outnumbering human cells by 10 to 1. Because of their small size, however, microorganisms make up only about 1% to 3% of the body’s mass, but play a vital role in human health.

Where doctors had previously isolated only a few hundred bacterial species from the body, Human Microbiome Project (HMP) researchers now calculate that more than 10,000 microbial species occupy the human ecosystem. Moreover, researchers calculate that they have identified between 81% and 99% of all microorganismal genera in healthy adults.

“Humans don’t have all the enzymes we need to digest our own diet,” said Lita Proctor, Ph.D., NHGRI’s HMP program manager. “Microbes in the gut break down many of the proteins, lipids and carbohydrates in our diet into nutrients that we can then absorb. Moreover, the microbes produce beneficial compounds, like vitamins and anti-inflammatories that our genome cannot produce.” Anti-inflammatories are compounds that regulate some of the immune system’s response to disease, such as swelling.

“Enabling disease-specific studies is the whole point of the Human Microbiome Project,” said Barbara Methé, Ph.D., of the J. Craig Venter Institute, Rockville, MD, and lead co-author of the Nature paper on the framework for current and future human microbiome research. “Now that we understand what the normal human microbiome looks like, we should be able to understand how changes in the microbiome are associated with, or even cause, illnesses.”

Read the full NIH press release on the normal bacterial makeup of the body

Related: Tracking the Ecosystem Within UsWhat Happens If the Overuse of Antibiotics Leads to Them No Longer Working?Antibacterial Products May Do More Harm Than GoodAntibiotics Too Often Prescribed for Sinus Woes

Human Gene Origins: 37% Bacterial, 35% Animal, 28% Eukaryotic

The percent of human genes that emerged in various stages of evolution: 37% bacterial, 28% eukaryotic, 16% animal, 13% vertebrate, 6% primate. The history that brought us to where we are is amazing. Eukaryotes include animals, plants, amoebae, flagellates, amoeboflagellates, fungi and plastids (including algae). So eukaryotic genes are those common to us and other non-animal eukaryotes while those classified as animal genes are shared by animals but not non-animal eukaryotes.

We are living in a bacterial world, and it’s impacting us more than previously thought by Lisa Zyga

Bacterial signaling is not only essential for development, it also helps animals maintain homeostasis, keeping us healthy and happy. As research has shown, bacteria in the gut can communicate with the brain through the central nervous system. Studies have found that mice without certain bacteria have defects in brain regions that control anxiety and depression-like behavior. Bacterial signaling also plays an essential role in guarding an animal’s immune system. Disturbing these bacterial signaling pathways can lead to diseases such as diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and infections. Studies also suggest that many of the pathogens that cause disease in animals have “hijacked” these bacterial communication channels that originally evolved to maintain a balance between the animal and hundreds of beneficial bacterial species.

Scientists have also discovered that bacteria in the human gut adapts to changing diets. For example, most Americans have a gut microbiome that is optimized for digesting a high-fat, high-protein diet, while people in rural Amazonas, Venezuela, have gut microbes better suited for breaking down complex carbohydrates. Some people in Japan even have a gut bacterium that can digest seaweed. Researchers think the gut microbiome adapts in two ways: by adding or removing certain bacteria species, and by transferring the desired genes from one bacterium to another through horizontal gene transfer. Both host and bacteria benefit from this kind of symbiotic relationship, which researchers think is much more widespread than previously thought.

We want badly for the message in ‘Animals in a bacterial world,’ to be a call for the necessary disappearance of the old boundaries between life science departments (e.g., Depts of Zoology, Botany, Microbiology, etc.) in universities, and societies (e.g., the American Society for Microbiology, etc.). We also want the message disseminated in college and university classes from introductory biology to advanced courses in the various topic areas of our paper.”

Very cool stuff. This amazing facts scientists discover provide an amazing view of the world we live in and how interconnected we are to other life forms in ways we don’t normally think of.

Related: People’s Bodies Carry More Bacterial Cells than Human CellsMicrobes Flourish In Healthy PeopleTracking the Ecosystem Within UsForeign Cells Outnumber Human Cells in Our BodiesBacteria Beneficial to Human Health

The Secret Life of Plankton

Fun video with great shots of exotic ocean life that forms the base of the food chain in the ocean from TED Education.

Related: Hydromedusae, Siphonophora, Cnidarians, CtenophoresMilestones on the Voyage to the Bottom of the SeaMacropinna Microstoma: Fish with a Transparent Head

Is Dirt Healthier Than Broccoli?

That dirt I ate as a kid is maybe why I have been relatively healthy. Ok, probably that hasn’t been the most important factor. But it may be that some dirt and germs (kids licking their dirty hands and the ice cream melts on it, etc.) is actually more important for their long term health than finishing off the broccoli (of course, a healthy diet requires eating a bunch of vegetables, more than most kids eat).

The hygiene hypothesis has become a popular explanation for the boom in asthma, allergies and other health problems. Boiled down to one sentence the hypothesis is that exposure to germs early in life creates a healthy immune system and too little exposure results in a hypersensitive immune system (that is not as effective and leads to things like allergies).

A recent closed science paper, Microbial Exposure During Early Life Has Persistent Effects on Natural Killer T Cell Function, found mice exposed to more germs early on where healthier:

Exposure to microbes during early childhood is associated with protection from immune-mediated diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and asthma. Here, we show that, in germ-free (GF) mice, invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells accumulate in the colonic lamina propria and lung, resulting in increased morbidity in models of IBD and allergic asthma compared to specific pathogen-free (SPF) mice. This was associated with increased intestinal and pulmonary expression of the chemokine ligand CXCL16, which was associated with increased mucosal iNKT cells. Colonization of neonatal—but not adult—GF mice with a conventional microbiota protected the animals from mucosal iNKT accumulation and related pathology. These results indicate that age-sensitive contact with commensal microbes is critical for establishing mucosal iNKT cell tolerance to later environmental exposures.

The microscopic battles waged in our bodies every day and over our lifetimes are amazing.

Related: Parasitic Worms Reduce Hay Fever SymptomsParasite RexKilling Germs May Be Hazardous to Your HealthTracking the Ecosystem Within Us

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover

Curiosity is the name of the new rover from NASA. It will be launched to continue the exploration of Mars so successfully done by Spirit and Opportunity (2 previous Mars rovers that did some amazing work and laster years longer than expected). The rover is NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, a mobile robot for investigating Mars’ past or present ability to sustain microbial life.

photo of NASA's Mars Rover: Curiosity

Once on the surface, the rover will be able to roll over obstacles up to 75 centimeters (29 inches) high and travel up to 90 meters per hour. On average, the rover is expected to travel about 30 meters per hour, based on power levels, slippage, steepness of the terrain, visibility, and other variables.

The rover is about the size of a small SUV — 10 feet long (not including the arm), 9 feet wide and 7 feet tall. It weighs 900 kilograms (2,000 pounds)

The rover will carry a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium’s radioactive decay. This power source gives the mission an operating lifespan on Mars’ surface of a full martian year (687 Earth days) or more, while also providing significantly greater mobility and operational flexibility, enhanced science payload capability, and exploration of a much larger range of latitudes and altitudes than was possible on previous missions to Mars.

Related: Mars Rover Continues ExplorationMars Rovers Getting Ready for Another Adventure (2007)Sunset on Mars

Changing Life as We Know It

Update: Independent researchers find no evidence for arsenic life in Mono Lake

NASA has made a discovery that changes our understanding of the very makeup of life itself on earth. I think my favorite scientific discipline name is astrobiology. NASA pursues a great deal of this research not just out in space but also looking at earth based life. Their astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.

photo of Felisa Wolfe-Simon

Felisa Wolfe-Simon processing mud from Mono Lake to inoculate media to grow microbes on arsenic.

Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are the six basic building blocks of all known forms of life on Earth. Phosphorus is part of the chemical backbone of DNA and RNA, the structures that carry genetic instructions for life, and is considered an essential element for all living cells.

Phosphorus is a central component of the energy-carrying molecule in all cells (adenosine triphosphate) and also the phospholipids that form all cell membranes. Arsenic, which is chemically similar to phosphorus, is poisonous for most life on Earth. Arsenic disrupts metabolic pathways because chemically it behaves similarly to phosphate.

Researchers conducting tests in the harsh, but beautiful (see photo), environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components.

“The definition of life has just expanded,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it.” This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth.

In science such huge breakthroughs are not just excepted without debate, however, which is wise.

Thriving on Arsenic:

In other words, every experiment Wolfe-Simon performed pointed to the same conclusion: GFAJ-1 can substitute arsenic for phosphorus in its DNA. “I really have no idea what another explanation would be,” Wolfe-Simon says.

But Steven Benner, a distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, FL, remains skeptical. If you “replace all the phosphates by arsenates,” in the backbone of DNA, he says, “every bond in that chain is going to hydrolyze [react with water and fall apart] with a half-life on the order of minutes, say 10 minutes.” So “if there is an arsenate equivalent of DNA in that bug, it has to be seriously stabilized” by some as-yet-unknown mechanism.

It is sure a great story if it is true though. Other scientists will examine more data and confirm or disprove the claims.

“We know that some microbes can breathe arsenic, but what we’ve found is a microbe doing something new — building parts of itself out of arsenic,” said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow in residence at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., and the research team’s lead scientist. “If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven’t seen yet?”
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A single Liter of Seawater Can Hold More Than One Billion Microorganisms

Mat of microbes the size of Greece discovered on seafloor

mighty microbes, which constitute 50 to 90 percent of the oceans’ total biomass, according to newly released data.

These tiny creatures can join together to create some of the largest masses of life on the planet, and researchers working on the decade-long Census of Marine Life project found one such seafloor mat off the Pacific coast of South America that is roughly the size of Greece.

A single liter of seawater, once thought to contain about 100,000 microbes, can actually hold more than one billion microorganisms, the census scientists reported. But these small creatures don’t just live in the water column or on the seafloor. Large communities of microscopic animals have even been discovered more than one thousand meters beneath the seafloor. Some of these deep burrowers, such as loriciferans, are only a quarter of a millimeter long.

“Far from being a lifeless desert, the deep sea rivals such highly diverse ecosystems as tropical rainforests and coral reefs,”

Microbes help to turn atmospheric carbon dioxide into usable carbon, completing about 95 percent of all respiration in the Earth’s oceans…

Related: Iron-breathing Species Isolated in Antarctic for Millions of YearsLife Far Beneath the OceanLife Untouched by the Sun

Invisible Worlds: Fastest Thing on the Planet

Fun with Fungi.

Related: Secret Life of MicrobesPlants, Unikonts, Excavates and SARsSmallest Known Living Organisms Found – 200 nanometers

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