Microbe Talk: May 2015

ICC BirminghamLast month, the Society held its Annual Conference, which was in Birmingham this year. It was a great event – over a thousand delegates attended, presenting hundreds of talks and posters. We spoke to some of the attendees about their work for this month’s podcast.

Firstly, we chatted with Dr Jennifer Gardy from the BC Centre for Disease Control in Canada, who told us about her role in the Society’s new journal Microbial Genomics and about the field of genomics in general.

Next up was Professor David Minnikin from the University of Birmingham, who is researching the origins of tuberculosis, which appears to have begun as an infection of ancient animals in the Pleistocene era.

Dr Nick Loman, also from the University of Birmingham, who told us about his work using a seriously tiny DNA sequencing machine.

Finally, Karl Dunne from, you guessed it, the University of Birmingham, talked about his PhD research, which has seen him sequence the first sample of E. coli bacteria, isolated by Theodor Escherich.

Show notes:

Don’t forget, you can subscribe to Microbe Talk on iTunes. You can also find us on Stitcher.

Benjamin Thompson

Image credit: Bob Hall on Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0
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New to science: May 2015

Each month, the Society for General Microbiology publishes the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, which details newly discovered species of bacteria, fungi and protists. Here are a few of the new species that have been discovered and the places they’ve been found. The full papers are available to journal subscribers, but the abstracts are free to read.

This month I’m going to attempt something special. I’m going to try to tenuously link together an entire blog post’s worth of new microbial discoveries, based on where they were discovered – wish me luck.

Let’s start with Uruburuella testudinis. This Gram-negative, non-motile species of bacteria was isolated by researchers in Switzerland from the respiratory tract of healthy tortoises and from the organs of septicaemic tortoises. The new species’ name relates to Testudo, the Latin word for tortoise.

The most famous tortoises in the world are the giant tortoises that live on the Galápagos Islands (RIP Lonesome George). The islands, along with mainland Ecuador, have been shown by researchers from Britain and Ecuador to be home to the yeast Kazachstania yasuniensis. Strains of the new fungus were identified in the mainland Yasuní National Park with others found among the islands. One particular strain – CLQCA 24SC-045 – was collected from a rotten ‘daisy tree’, a species native to the Galápagos. Continue reading

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Using pig lungs to better understand Cystic fibrosis-related infections in humans

DSC_0471Cystic fibrosis (CF) is an inherited genetic condition that affects around 10,000 people in the UK. Caused by a mutation in the CFTR gene, CF is typified by incorrect transport of salt and water into and out of cells, which leads to the production of thick, sticky mucus in the digestive system and lungs.

Due to the presence of excess mucus, people with CF are at risk of frequent lung infections. One of the most common bacterial species involved in these infections is Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can be difficult to treat and carries an increasing risk of antibiotic resistance.

In order to better understand how P. aeruginosa is able to colonise lung tissue, researchers at the University of Nottingham have turned to an unusual source: a local butcher. Specifically, the group worked with the Nottingham butcher JT Beedham & Sons, who provided them with pigs’ lungs that they could then use to grow the P. aeruginosa bacteria.

Warning: This video contains images of pig innards.

Using these lungs as a model for disease has a number of advantages: structurally and immunologically they are similar to human lungs; and, importantly, they are post-consumer waste. By finding another use for the lungs, researchers can reduce the number of animals that need to be used in CF research.

Dr Freya Harrison, who led the research (and appears in our video) explained what the group are able to study by using the pig lungs: “We’re able to monitor the progress of the P. aeruginosa infection and study how the bacteria evolve and diversify.

“We found that our pig lung model also made it easier for us to study the cell-to-cell interactions in the bacterial population, a phenomenon called ‘quorum sensing’, which is the target of new pharmaceutical research to fight antibiotic-resistant infection.”

Benjamin Thompson

You can find more information about Freya’s work and the work of the group that she’s part of here.

Harrison, F., Muruli, A., Higgins, S., & Diggle, S. (2014). Development of an Ex Vivo Porcine Lung Model for Studying Growth, Virulence, and Signaling of Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Infection and Immunity, 82 (8), 3312-3323 DOI: 10.1128/IAI.01554-14

Image Credit: Jon Fuhrmann/Society for General Microbiology
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Society launches new play about STIs

Last month, the Society launched the next leg of the tour of If It’s Not On, It’s Not On, our educational play about sexually transmitted infections.

The play will be visiting schools across the UK throughout 2015 and is aimed at young people around the age of 14. So far, the reception has been fantastic – laughter, rapt attention and even a few tears.

The story follows teenager Luke in the aftermath of his first sexual experience.  He quickly discovers that he may have contracted a sexually transmitted infection (STI) after having had unprotected sex. Luke then goes on a journey through the history of STIs and learns about the facts and risks of unprotected sex.

The action is high energy and comical throughout, communicating the information to the young people in an amusing and engaging way, while still making the risks of contracting STIs very clear.

With rates of STIs remaining high among teenagers in the UK, the intention behind this tour is to reach out to thousands of school-age teens and to give clear information about the subject. While keeping the topic entertaining, we hope to deliver the messages about safe sex in a matter-of-fact, upfront fashion that might be difficult in traditional lessons, given the sensitive subject matter.

The production is available free to schools; if you would be interested in having the play visit your school, please drop me an email.

Kitty Morgan

The Society has resources for educators that can be used to discuss issues raised by the play. You can find them here.

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My First Annual Conference

rachel-kettlesFor many researchers, attending big science conferences is something that comes as part of the job. These events are the way that scientists catch up with their colleagues, find out about new research in their area or even look for new jobs. While this might come as second nature to seasoned researchers, what’s it like to go to your first conference? We caught up with Rachel Kettles, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham, to find out about her experiences at the Society’s Annual Conference last month.

I’m Rachel, a 1st year PhD student, studying the biology of bacterial chromosomes. Until recently, I had never been to a conference; fortunately, the Society for General Microbiology’s Annual Conference was just round the corner, so I hopped down the road to the ICC! I tweeted my experiences of the conference using the hashtag #myfirstsgm – you can see some of them embedded below.

My main concern before attending was that I wouldn’t be able to understand many of the talks. For some reason I expected a lot of very complicated, inaccessible science! Of course, with an audience from a range of fields the majority of speakers kept things quite broad, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was able to follow most of what was going on.

Previously I’ve only attended student symposiums and I quickly discovered I’d underestimated the difference in scale between them and a big conference. Who knew the UK had so many microbiologists?

What particularly amazed me was the hype and enthusiasm of the Twitter community throughout the conference. It was a useful way to keep up with what was going on in the other sessions and make new contacts. I heard from other conference newcomers and those reminiscing on their own first conference, which really helped me feel welcomed.

Obviously, at a conference of this size, there were a huge variety of talks and most sessions were outside of my immediate research interests. However this wasn’t a bad thing at all – I was able to explore other areas of microbiology that interest me. Highlights included the antibiotic resistance sessions and the Hot Topic lecture on the management of the Ebola crisis.

I think it’s really important for young researchers to attend these meetings. Making contacts and having access to high-quality talks is indispensable for further development – so having Society grants available to students is essential. Ultimately, the key thing I gained was a real sense of belonging to a wider microbiological community. It can be daunting going to these things as a newcomer but everyone was very welcoming – I’ll definitely be back next year!

Rachel Kettles

Image credit: Rachel Kettles
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Microbe Talk: April 2015

Leeuwenhoek2In 1677, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek had a letter published in the Royal Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions, which was the first paper to describe microbes, opening up the world of microbiology that we know today. This year is the 350th anniversary of Philosophical Transactions, so the Royal Society commissioned a special issue containing commentaries about some of the most important papers to appear in the journal. I spoke to Dr Nick Lane, from University College London, who’s written about Leeuwenhoek’s letter and its importance.

Speaking of Royal Society journals, I also spoke to Dr Paul Parham from the University of Liverpool in this podcast. Paul has recently co-edited a themed edition of the Philosophical Transactions B, which concentrates on the effect that climate change is having on vector-borne diseases, such as those transmitted by mosquitoes or ticks. I asked Paul about how changes in climate are altering the behaviour and habit of these vectors, and what this might mean for diseases.

Show notes:

Don’t forget, you can subscribe to Microbe Talk on iTunes. You can also find us on Stitcher.

Benjamin Thompson

Image credit: Wellcome Images (cropped) under CC BY 4.0
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World Malaria Day 2015

Today is World Malaria Day 2015, which highlights the continued fight against a disease that affects millions of people across the world. In this post, we’ve pulled together some facts and information from sources across the web.

Malaria is caused by parasitic protozoans and transmitted between people through the bites of mosquitos. The parasites belong to the genus Plasmodium, with four species causing malaria in humans: P. falciparum, P. vivax, P. malariae and P. ovale. The vast majority of malaria cases are caused by P. falciparum, which also causes the highest numbers of deaths. In 2013, the WHO estimated that there were 198 million cases of malaria, which resulted in an estimated 584,000 deaths. Continue reading

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