My sister, a medical student who has worked in a pathology lab, recently mentioned in passing that specific strains of bacteria, grown in an incubator, can have some pretty unusual smells. When I asked what she meant, she drew me this table (on some handy Discover stationary).
Now, I’ve grown plenty of yeast in my day, and they just smell like gym socks. Maybe, if you get some wild ones in there, like gym shorts (I’ve never enjoyed fancy beer made with wild yeast. Too redolent of crotch).
This level of olfactory whimsy, then, was totally new to me: Pseudomonas aeruginosa smells like flowers? Streptococcus milleri smells of browned butter? Clostridium difficule, scourge of elderly intestines, bringer of fecal transplants, smells like horse poo? I’ll confess, I never quite thought about what happens when you get millions of a single kind of bacteria all together in one place and take a nice long sniff. I did not think it would ever be pleasant. I was wrong.
When bacteria attack a host, they aren’t a conversation about whether to go after a particular cell; they’re doing something called quorum sensing, which means that just by sensing what others around it are doing, an individual starts doing a certain thing. Social insects use a similar technique to pick out a new nesting site.
Now, thanks to some elegant nature-inspired programming by MIT researchers, a pack of bipedal robots are using quorum sensing to execute a complex behavior that human groups have tried—and, by and large, failed—to perform for decades: The robots can do the Thriller dance in unison—and, what’s even more impressive, if one misses a few steps, it can rejoin the other dancers without a hitch.
This sort of technological synchrony, Technology Review’s arXiv blog points out, could make such robots invaluable in construction or manufacturing tasks that require high levels of cooperation. That would be well and good, but after seeing those moves, we’re just wondering what other dances they might know—and whether they do bar mitzvahs.
French teenagers are learning how to work with bacteria in science labs. Sound like a harmless–and even beneficial–thing, right? But because their experiments involve the genetic modification of Escherichia coli (E. coli) to build resistance to the antibiotic ampicillin, some French organizations are raising the alarm.
One such group includes the Committee for Research & Independent Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN), which lobbies for tighter genetic engineering laws. CRIIGEN President Gilles-Eric Séralini said that he will implore France’s education ministry to ban the creation of trangenic E. coli by 15- and 16-year-old students.
He warns against trivialization of a sensitive subject, contamination risks and possible violation of European directives on the manipulation of genetically modified organisms in confined spaces. “I am also concerned that practical classes erode the time spent imparting knowledge of biology,” he adds.
Most people see filthy jeans as a sign of laundry time; others see them as a science experiment. In a someone scary example of DIY science, one student at the University of Alberta found that unwashed jeans worn for 15 months contain the same amount of bacteria as unwashed jeans worn for 13 days. While the science isn’t the most rigorous, we applaud the student’s commitment to experimentation.
Starting in September 2009, Josh Le began wearing a pair of untreated denim pants, eventually wearing them 330 times by December 2010–in other words, over 15 months of unwashed, filthy freedom. And like anyone who wears a specific article of clothing for days on end, Le got fairly attached. As ABC News reports:
“One time I was eating grapefruit, I’d finished the meaty part and was drinking juice and spilled it on my jeans, my heart stopped for a second,” Le said…. He got the stain out and said it didn’t leave an odor.
In response to a survey of 3,000 British adults, a majority of which believe that public toilets out-filth everything else, the company BioCote–a producer of anti-bacterial coatings–decided to get to the bottom of the issue by comparing ATMs and toilets. Researchers scoured England, swabbing heavily-used ATM key pads as well as nearby public toilet seats. After letting the swabbed bacteria grow over night, they compared the cultures and discovered that both contained bacteria from the groups Bacillus and Pseudomonadaceae.
The Daily Mail quotes BioCote microbiologist Richard Hastings:
“We were surprised by our results because the ATM machines were shown to be heavily contaminated with bacteria; to the same level as nearby public toilets. In addition the bacteria we detected on ATMs were similar to those from the toilet, which are well known as causes of common human illnesses.”
But one should always consider the source: BioCote specializes in selling anti-bacterial products. How convenient, then, that they are able to find so much bacteria on ATMs. And the company’s finding has garnered at least one detractor. CBS News quotes William Shaffner, a preventative medicine specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center:
“Bacillus is trivial,” he tells CBS News. “It only causes infections in the most compromised people in hospitals. Pseudomonads is quite similar.” Schaffner says you could swab almost anything and find these two microscopic buggers. “We live in a microbial world,” he says. Whether found on telephones, ATMs, toilet seats, folded money, or counters in department stores, these types of environmental bacteria have never been conclusively demonstrated to transmit illness.
Although the research gives new life to the term “filthy rich,” you probably won’t see the ATM-equivalent of plastic toilet seat covers in the near future. Most harmful bacteria transmissions, after all, still happen via airborne or human-to-human contact. But all the same, after your next stop at the money-mouth machine, you might feel better if you wash your hands.
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Image: flickr / catatronic
Cavities could one day become a thing of the past, as new research is decoding how our mouth bacteria are able to attach their dirty little mounds of plaque to our teeth, and is suggesting ways we might be able to outsmart them.
Cavities come from bacteria that live in our mouths and digest sugars in the food we eat, producing tooth-dissolving acids. The most annoying tooth-bug is Streptococcus mutans, which causes tooth decay. The bacteria use an enzyme called glucansucrase, which converts sugar into long sticky chains that allow the bacteria to glue themselves to the surface teeth. Once they’re in place, they can start in on the acid production.
While watching the science news for you here at Discover blogs, we’ve seen our share of bad science coverage. Most of the time, we let it slide. Most of the time, we write the truth and hope to overshadow the erroneous and exaggerated stories. But this time… this time we’re calling it out.
Last week’s coverage of the bacteria that live in Mono Lake, CA was over hyped because of a cryptic message in a NASA press release (namely, that the discovery would “impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life”). And even after all the build up, the early embargo break, and a long press conference, many news outlets STILL got the story wrong.
Marc Abrahams enjoys writing operas, but until a few years ago had never even been to one. Abrahams is the editor and co-creator of the Annals of Improbable Research, the science humor magazine that gave birth to the Ig Nobel awards, a marvelous celebration of quirky but intelligent scientific breakthroughs. For the last 15 years Abrahams has been tasked with writing a scientific opera for the ceremony.
This year’s theme was bacteria, so naturally Abrahams wrote an opera about the bacteria living on a woman’s tooth, and their (eventually tragic) efforts to escape. The video of this year’s Ig Nobel ceremony is below (skip to the following times to view the four acts of the bacterial opera: Act I at 54:30, Act II at 1:07:20, Act III at 1:29:10, and Act IV at 1:52:00). Discoblog talked with Abrahams to get the scoop on the bacterial-opera-writing business.
Discoblog: This is the 15th Ig Nobel opera–why did you choose to do operas instead of a ballet, slam poetry session, haiku contest, or something else?
Marc Abrahams: In the Ig’s second year, we realized that we had this once in a lifetime grouping of people there, and we decided to take advantage of it. One of the things we try to stick in is a public event, done in a different way, that everybody has had to sit through too many times. We’ve had a ballet once or twice, we’ve had a fashion show, and I guess it was about the sixth year we got to an opera.
DB: So why does the opera work so well?
MA: Well, the brilliant words of course. (laughs)
Part of it is we take it very seriously. It’s done by very good performers and staged and put together really well, and people don’t expect that. An awful lot of people who come haven’t seen professional opera singers, and when you are in a room with one, it can be quite entrancing and astounding. At the end of the opera, most of the scientists come on and are having the time of their lives doing it.
DB: How do you go about writing an opera on a new topic every year?
MA: Bacteria was the theme we had chosen for the ceremony, and so I came up with the basic plot of the opera, and then since I don’t know a lot about bacteria myself I started reading a lot and calling up friends and scientists. Originally the bacteria were going to live on somebody’s eyelashes because that seemed a natural place, because they could see what the person would.
Then Harriet Provine [microbiologist at Harvard Medical School] almost instantly said, “Well, you know, if you are a bacterium that’s not the place you really want to be living. It’s not moist, there isn’t a lot to eat there.” We decided that the mouth would probably be the ideal place, and that quickly got localized to a front tooth, because then they would have access to the light–all the person has to do is have her mouth open.
Hit the jump for the video.
The list of wacky science discoveries from the Ig Nobel awards announced last night includes teams who made strides in vital fields like bat fellatio and curing diseases via roller coaster rides.
The awards are given out every year for discoveries that made us both laugh and think. Here’s a full list of the winning teams and projects:
“We live in the south of New Zealand in a very hilly city (we have the steepest street in the world!), and intermittent icy conditions in winter can create major havoc,” she said.
Management: A mathematical study by researchers in Italy found that in some business situations, it is better to promote randomly than the choose the most qualified candidates.
Engineering: A team based in the UK and Mexico found the perfect way to collect whale snot–send a remote controlled helicopter in to do it for you. The team members explained the technique to ABC News:
“The technique involves flying a remote-controlled helicopter above a whale as it surfaces and catching the whale blow in petri dishes attached to the underside of the helicopter,” they said in a statement.
It’s not Prada, Gucci, or Dolce & Gabbana. That head-turning jacket is a bacteria cellulose original. Bio-Couture clothing transforms a hardening ooze–yanked from tubs of yeast, bacteria, and green tea–into high fashion.
It may sound a bit like a Project Runway challenge, but according to the Bio-Couture website, the microbe-made clothes are meant as a sustainability project. The bacteria forms a congealing fiber (video), which designers can roll into thin sheets to make the base of each garment. As reported by ecouterre, where we found this story, overlaying pieces of the sheets as they dry will “felt” them together into a fashionable whole, without the need for stitching. Examples of the Bio-Couture’s latest pieces are currently on display as part of a nine-month exhibit called “TrashFashion” at London’s Science Museum.
Suzanne Lee and her design team at the School of Fashion & Textiles at Central Saint Martins in London hope to make even more complicated pieces using this technique–as perhaps evidenced by pictures on the project’s website of mannequins submerged in bacterial slime.
“Our ultimate goal is to literally grow a dress in a vat of liquid…”
Fancy color accoutrements come from dyes made of foodstuffs like port wine, curry powder, cherries, and beetroot. And the whole garment is compostable once passé–eliminating any evidence of past fashion faux pas.
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