Cold comfort

sneezeI tend to get a lot of summer colds, in fact I’ve probably got one now. Today at the Society’s Annual Conference, we’ll be learning a lot more about the symptoms of the common cold and what causes them…

“They often have a relatively poor diet, are frequently stressed and usually don’t get enough sleep – students are the perfect volunteers.”

These are the words of Professor Ron Eccles, who is presenting a talk today at the conference, entitled Understanding the symptoms of common cold and flu. Ron works at Cardiff University’s Common Cold Centre, where he works with industry to better develop symptomatic cold treatments. The Centre tests their remedies on volunteers who come in when they first begin to get a cold. As he suggests, the university’s student populace gives them a large pool of people to work with.

Ron’s talk describes the body’s typical reaction to the common cold. However, ‘typical’ is a difficult word to use –some people are beset by colds all year round, while others never seem to get ill. This is all down to an individual’s immune system, which Ron believes research is starting to show “is as unique as our looks or our personality.” Indeed, the immune system of the student volunteers is relatively immature, as they have yet to be exposed to the countless multitude of rhinoviruses (the major cause of the cold) in the environment. The immune system of older people has had time to develop, hence why they get fewer colds. Continue reading

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A mind-altering microbe?

Cat eat RatCan a parasite change our behaviour? Might your mood today have been altered by a foreign organism living inside you, hiding from your immune system? Today at the Society for General Microbiology Annual Conference, Professor Joanne Webster, from Imperial College London, will be talking about the impact of Toxoplasma gondii.

Relationships between parasites and their hosts are complex and often multi-step. T. gondii is a protozoan parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. It can infect all warm-blooded animals, including people, but can only sexually reproduce in cats. If you were infected with T. gondii you probably don’t know it – initial symptoms in humans are often mild and shortlived. You probably won’t know if your cat has it either – they generally won’t seem unwell if they are infected.

Webster and her team primarily observed rats infected with T. gondii, looking at how attracted they were to cat urine. Usually, rats are scared of cats – if they smell cat urine they run a mile. Being near cat urine means you’re more likely to be near an actual cat, which in turn means you’ve more chance of being eaten. However, the team found rats infected with T. gondii showed very different behaviour and were highly attracted to cat urine. This behaviour is advantageous for the parasite – if an infected rat is eaten the parasite has a better chance of transferring to its final host, the cat, where it can complete its lifecyle. The researchers observed subtle changes in the rats’ behaviour that could increase the chances of predation – they were more active, more exploratory, more risk-taking. Continue reading

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By fair means or foul

Root nodulesBacteria can be altruistic in their behaviour or downright mean. Today at the SGM’s Annual Conference, Professor Kevin Foster will tell us about his work studying cooperation and competition in bacterial colonies.

When thinking about microbes, one may imagine primitive and ultimately solitary creatures concerned only with their own reproduction. In fact, scientists usually study micro-organisms in isolation from other cells, without possibility for interaction. The underlying assumption is that wherever they are found – in a primordial sludge, a petri dish in a lab, maybe even inside another living being – they are solely concerned with their own ability to reproduce. As a result, they will battle any other organism they encounter for space, nutrients and the resulting ability to divide faster.

Professor Foster from the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford is working to change this rather narrow view of microbial interaction. He studies the concepts of co-operation and social behaviour in the world of micro-organisms. After all, he says, a lot of the effects microbes have on us – whether good or bad – are associated with how they interact among themselves. The notion that single-celled organisms are too primitive to do anything other than multiply as quickly as possible and directly compete against all other organisms they encounter is incorrect: microbes certainly interact and co-operate with each other in a variety of ways. Continue reading

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Co-circulation of viruses between apes and humans in Africa

ResearchBlogging.orgGorillaOn 21 July 1969, Neil Armstrong made mankind’s most famous leap, when he opened the Eagle’s hatch and stepped down onto the lunar surface. Hundreds of thousands of miles away in Ghana, something else happened in 1969 that you may not have heard of, yet it happens every year.

Contemporary reports detail an epidemic of a highly contagious disease sweeping across the country. Within hours of being infected, people showed signs of eye inflammation and subconjunctival haemorrhage – bloodshot eyes to you and I.

The disease is known as acute haemorrhagic conjunctivitis (AHC), which although painful, is usually short-lived and results in no long-term damage. The Department of Ophthalmology at the Ghana Medical School reported seeing a total of 13,644 cases between June and October of 19691, with the disease spreading to Asia in 1970 and, ultimately, worldwide. Outbreaks of the disease continue to happen annually in Ghana, where it is called ‘Apollo’, in reference to 1969’s Apollo 11 moon mission and the year the disease first occurred. Continue reading

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The microbial mystery at the Hungarian power plant

ResearchBlogging.orgPower station microbeDr Erika Tóth, of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, was approached by the staff of a Hungarian power plant with an unusual request. The ultrapure water (UPW) purification system that produces the water used in the power plant’s cooling system was no longer supplying UPW in adequate quantities. Upon closer investigation, the water turned out to be free of physical and chemical contaminants, the usual corrosion culprits, so a biological component was suspected.

The UPW that cools the power plant contains very little organic or inorganic matter – the equivalent of one grain of sugar in an Olympic swimming pool. It therefore came as a surprise that even oligotrophic bacteria, known for their ability to thrive in resource-poor environments, could proliferate here. However, Dr Tóth and her Hungarian-German team found hundreds of different bacteria in the filtration systems, among them three new strains of bacteria of the class Alphaproteobacteria. Phylogenetic analysis and a study of biochemical and physiological characteristics, recently published in the journal IJSEM, revealed that these three strains belong to a new genus and species, known as Phreatobacter oligotrophus.

True to the old adage, it was important to understand the enemy in order to defeat it. The team used various molecular studies to pinpoint where in the system the microbial contamination was highest. Having identified the bacteria and their location, the team attempted to culture them in order to study them in the laboratory, which proved a difficult task. Oligotrophic bacteria cannot survive in an environment even slightly too nutrient-rich, so the environment of the filtering system had to be approximated as closely as possible.

Continue reading

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Microbe Talk: March 2014

177271963This month on the podcast, Ben interviews Dr Dan Zeigler about this work on Geobacillus. These microbes prefer to grow at hot temperatures, yet have been isolated at the bottom of the ocean and on the top of mountains. Ben asked Dan about the role these bacteria play in the global ecosystem and about his recent paper ‘The Geobacillus paradox: why is a thermophilic bacterial genus so prevalent on a mesophilic planet?’.

Show links:

Don’t forget, you can subscribe to Microbe Talk on iTunes.

Benjamin Thompson

Image Credit: Bolivian Andes via Thinkstock
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Voice of the Future 2014


Last week, the Society of Biology held its annual ‘Voice of the Future’ event, where early career researchers had the chance to ask questions to parliamentarians and leading civil servants. SGM funded two student members to attend. In this post, reblogged from the John Innes Centre, Izzy Webb reviews her time at the event.

Image credit: Society of Biology

Originally posted on John Innes SVC:

This month I was selected to represent the Society of General Microbiology at an event called Voice of the Future (VOF). This is an annual event (in its third year) which gives young scientists the chance to directly engage with the policy makers making decisions today. It is organised by the Society of Biology along with several other learned societies who invite their members to get involved. I have been particularly interested in science policy since I began my PhD a year and a half ago, so this was a great chance to get involved and do something more than just reading articles, ranting to my friends and tweeting. It was also a nice chance to meet other students with interests in science policy – like Scott Nicholson who was my fellow representative for the SGM.

Voice of the Future is an event that takes itself seriously, and so as…

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