Tuesday, 24 November 2015 09:55

Finessing cocoa fermentation

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Food microbiology, the most delicious of all microbiology fields, encompasses many subfields, one of which is fermentation processes. Lots of foodstuffs require microbial metabolic processing to change the chemical composition of food or drink – from fermenting ethanol in alcoholic beverages to lactic acid in cheese and yogurt, microbes contribute a good deal to the everyday foods we eat.
Friday, 20 November 2015 09:54

ICE-ing out antibiotic resistance

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There’s no question antibiotic resistance is one of the major medical issues of our era. The numbers are stark: 23,000 deaths from drug-resistant infections in the United States alone each year (25,000 in the European Union). Hospitals spend billions more on patients who require 8 million days of extra care. These numbers, while striking, are less important than the experience many have had with patients, friends, or family members suffering with an infection not responding to treatment.
Each person’s gut is home to tens of trillions of microorganisms. These organisms can live in the gut and not cause any problems. In some people, however, a microorganism can take up residence in another part of the body and cause disease. Candida albicans is one example.
Tuesday, 17 November 2015 16:38

Tracking a Deadly Fungal Foe in Snakes’ Skin

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It’s never a dull day for Jeffrey Lorch and his colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin who track unexplained mortality and emerging diseases in wild animals. Think of it as a cross between CSI: Animal Kingdom and a zoological CDC.
Earlier today, I wrote about biofilms and the negative consequences they can have on human health during infection. Much discussion of biofilms centers around the interaction of pathogenic microbes and their abilities to form during infection. However, as I alluded to in the introduction, biofilms are important in many nonmedical aspects of life – they contaminate cargo ships, food processing centers (including your kitchen), as well as occur naturally in many environmental settings.
Biofilms – the bane of dentists and cargo ships alike – are a form of surface-attached microbial growth that is especially hardy. The cellular community not only changes its genetic expression patterns to increase resiliency under harsh conditions such as chemical or immunological attack, but the extracellular matrix in which the microbes reside adds a layer of protection. Newly published research support that these two phenomena – the gene expression pattern changes and the physical encasement by the matrix – are related.
Although there has been some movement toward more judicious use of antibiotics, there are still people who take the drugs thinking it will help the common cold, and dentists who regularly prescribe antibiotics for patients prior to some common oral surgeries like third molar extraction.
The relatively new field of extracellular vesicle study (see graph with increasing Pubmed search hits) has found these amazing objects to carry out many different functions for many different cell types. Extracellular vesicles are membrane-bound structures that are released away from cells into the environment. These vesicles carry signaling molecules, nutrient scavenging molecules, immune-modulating molecules – the list goes on and on. Every cell type examined produces vesicles, too: bacterial, protozoan, archaeal, and metazoan extracellular vesicles have been described with many different biological effects.
Wednesday, 28 October 2015 16:18

‘Jazzing up’ the seasonal flu vaccine

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University of Melbourne immunology researchers Brendon Chua and David C. Jackson have been working together for 10 years on how to build a better vaccine.  Their close collaboration sometimes results in them finishing each other’s sentences.  But now, it has also resulted in a multi-tasking, powerhouse of a flu vaccine.  At least in mice, that is.
We discuss the problem of antibiotic resistance a lot on this blog. With increases in the number of infectious diseases that no longer respond to drugs that were once effective, this effort makes sense. However, some diseases have never responded well to antibiotic treatment in the first place. Mucormycosis, also called zygomycosis, is one of these diseases.
Bacteriophage are viruses that target a bacterial host for infection. Their specificity is often constrained not only by a particular species, but can also be restricted to infect only a specific strain of that particular species.
Inflammation is a normal part of the host response to bacterial infection. Activation of pathogen recognition receptors leads to cytokine release and the influx of immune cells. Eradicating microbes via inflammation can result in collateral damage: healthy tissues can be damaged by the immune response, but at least the microbial infection is also eliminated. Right?
Ebola hemorrhagic fever is a scary disease. Not only a scary disease to contract and experience, but also a scary disease to survive: news this week has covered the deteriorating condition of the Scottish nurse who survived acute Ebola infection in 2014. Stories of survivors with sudden onset of complications have highlighted how little we know about this disease and those who survive it.
When a Wisconsin state epidemiologist called food microbiologist Kathleen Glass last fall to inquire if she thought caramel apples would be a source of listeriosis, her immediate reaction was no.
Monday, 12 October 2015 15:50

Slo-ing down Streptococcus mutans

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One of my favorite diseases is dental caries. I remember learning, as a wee microbiologist, that cavities were an infectious disease. The idea seemed revolutionary to me at the time. This idea is fairly routine in the world of dentistry nowadays, but it wasn’t always that way.
Global warming (or climate change, if you prefer) doesn't only mean bad things for polar bears. Some immediate implications will hit much closer to readers’ homes (assuming you don’t live at the north pole) and involve much smaller animals.
When a foreign object (such as a microbe) first invades our bodies, there are two broad niches it may land on: wet or dry. The dry option, our skin, allows direct microbial interaction with our cells, though the outermost layer is dead or dying cells that will be lost by desquamation. The wet option, our mucous membranes, is covered by a layer of viscous mucins, glycoproteins, and water (namely, mucus), which acts as a barrier between invading microbes and the underlying cells. Almost anything that isn’t skin – eyes, oral cavity, GI tract, genital tract, lungs – is part of…
Wednesday, 30 September 2015 15:36

Microbiology at the iGEM competition

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How do new scientists learn important skills and concepts? The traditional didactic lecture has fallen out of favor, with students passively listening (or texting in the back) in a top-down knowledge dissemination model. Current curricula utilize several teaching methodologies to engage students both in the classroom and in teaching labs, and there’s no substitute for research as a learning experience. This past weekend, I had the pleasure to attend the 2015 iGEM Giant Jamboree, a team-based molecular cloning biotechnology competition. As a team mentor for several years, I highly recommend this experience as a learning technique for students and team…
Friday, 25 September 2015 15:32

Battling boring beer: new diversity for lagers

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Have you ever brewed beer at home? As a trained yeast geneticist, I felt compelled to at least experience home brewing, and have made dozens of one-gallon brews – amber ales are my favorite. Unfortunately (but probably fortunately for my liver), my small apartment doesn’t facilitate the five-gallon set up that many home-brewers use. But even a gallon’s worth of beer has allowed me to utilize the microbial metabolisms involved in taking a sugar source and turning it into ethanol and other palatable molecules. Brewing is truly one of the best ways to appreciate microbial growth, biochemistry, and a good…
Tuesday, 22 September 2015 15:29

Cerebral Malaria and HIV

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As an infectious diseases physician, Kami Kim says she had long been interested to find the link between HIV and malaria, even if one initially didn’t seem to exist.