Microbe Talk: July 2015

DSC_0115This month’s episode of Microbe Talk is something a bit different – the first in a two-part special on forensic microbiology.

In part one, we’re exploring the microbes of death and decay – and how they can be used by forensic scientists to work out when and how someone has died.

We spoke to writer Mo Costandi about his recent experiences visiting body farms in Texas, where scientists study the process of decomposition. Mo wrote an article for the Wellcome Trust’s Mosaic on the subject (which is well worth reading), so we asked him to the Society’s offices to find out more about what happens to our bodies after we die.

We also hear from forensic scientist Dr Gulnaz Javan, who is conducting research into the “thanatomicrobiome”, or microbes of death, at one of these facilities. Gulnaz and her team take samples from cadavers and the surrounding soil in order to study the microbial communities present at different stages of decomposition. She talked to us about a recent paper from her group that discusses their early findings.

This episode contains descriptions of decomposing human corpses.


You can see a gallery of some photos which Mo took at one of the body farms below:

Show notes:

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

Anand Jagatia

Image credit: Mo Costandi
Music: Chris Zabriskie under CC BY 4.0
Sound effects: “BunchOfFlies” by HerbertBoland under CC BY 3.0, “Countryside in Texas, insects and birds” by felix.blume under CC0 1.0
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New to science: July 2015

9530027627_b5a9327fd9_zEach 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.

As always, this month’s New to Science contains microbes from a wide range of plants, animals and environments.

In the plant kingdom, researchers from Spain have isolated a new species of Vibrio bacteria from fermentations of Spanish-style green olives, and propose the name Vibrio olivae. The fermentation process involves covering the fruits with brine, during which different populations of microbes emerge as the fermentation progresses through different stages.

Across the world in China, another (much less edible) plant was found to be the source of a novel actinomycete, Plantactinospora veratri. The new species was isolated from the root of Veratrum nigrum, which is also known as ‘black false hellebore’. The plant, which apparently smells very unpleasant, has been known since ancient times for its high toxicity. Eating very small amounts can cause blurred vision, vomiting, muscle twitching and even death. Continue reading

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Parliamentary Links Day 2015

arikanaA few weeks ago, the Society attended Parliamentary Links Day 2015, an event organised by the Society of Biology that brings together researchers, learned societies and parliamentarians. We went along with some of our members, one of whom is Arikana Massiah, a Society Champion and pre-registration Clinical Microbiologist at Barts Health NHS Trust. Arikana blogged her thoughts about the event for us.

Arriving at the Links Day, I was immediately struck by how well attended the event was by both scientists and parliamentarians. The researchers at the event ranged from early career scientists through to senior researchers, representing a variety of science backgrounds. I was proud to see so many scientists gathered in the same room, eager to discuss important science policy issues.

The day started with the Speaker of the House of Commons, Rt Hon John Bercow MP, emphasising the importance of science to Britain’s growing economy and explaining how scientists can influence science policy.

Chi Onwurah MP was second on the podium, motivating scientists to continue advocating for increases in funding and improvement of education in science and engineering. There was something very personal when she asked all female scientists in the room to identify themselves by show of hand and wished us all a happy National Women in Engineering Day – again, another proud moment. She went on to encourage all scientists to engage with politics as, unfortunately, there are very few parliamentarians with a scientific background (the numbers have actually decreased in the new Parliament). Continue reading

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Microbe Talk Extra: Culture Collections


Private Ernest Cable was a WW1 soldier who died on 13 March 1915 and his body now lies in a communal cemetery in Wimereux, France.

Records suggest that Cable was the first British soldier in WW1 to die from dysentery – an intestinal diarrhoeal infection, caused by Shigella flexneri bacteria. Today, a sample of the very Shigella which infected and killed Cable can be found at the National Collection of Type Cultures (NCTC), where it is helping researchers to understand the evolution of drug resistance.

The NCTC is part of Public Health England’s Culture Collections, which includes thousands of strains of bacteria, viruses and fungi. We spoke to Julie Russell, Head of Culture Collections, about some of the more unusual historical strains housed there, and the role that they continue to play in the fight against disease.

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

Anand Jagatia

Image: Wimereux Communal Cemetery. Image credit: Wernervc on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0
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Invisible You: Art and Microbiology at the Eden Project

aVLls7LHKGUileuqCe2dYISv5vsk90M2o9AOBYVZGcE,ljCJ3HcnN4RWN6u4MTaguhtTvWUZqCm7a417ggj4oW4Invisible You. The Human Microbiome is a new permanent exhibition at the Eden Project, exploring the trillions of microbes that live on and within us.

The exhibit, which is funded by the Wellcome Trust, features amazing work from a dozen artists on themes surrounding the human microbiome.

The new space includes intricate sculptures (made from porcelain, paper and even faecal transplants), an animation depicting what microbes watch on the telly, and a mechanical model automaton of the human gut.

We visited the Eden Project to find out more about the artists and their work, as well as talking to the staff and scientists involved in the project about their experiences, and their ambitions for the new exhibition.

Anand Jagatia

Image: ‘Don’t Try This At Home’ by Anna Dumitriu. Eden Project
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Microbe Talk: June 2015

GalwayWe’ve been out and about this month, interviewing researchers in Glasgow, Manchester and Galway for the podcast. Up first, Ben travelled to Scotland to chat with Dr Adam Kucharski from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Adam is an expert in disease modelling, and he told us how his work is helping in the fight against the ongoing Ebola outbreak.

Books and films are full of end-of-the-world microbiological fiction, but can they be used to help engage the public with the fundamentals of disease research? Anand went to Manchester to speak with Professor Jo Verran, founder of the Bad Bugs Book Club.

A few weeks ago, Ben attended the Society’s Irish Division Meeting in Galway. There were lots of great talks, and he got a chance to grab a few minutes with Professors Kim Lewis and Martin Cormican. Kim is Director of the Antimicrobial Discovery Center at Northeastern University, Boston, USA, while Martin is Professor of Bacteriology and a Consultant Microbiologist at NUI Galway. Both are interested in antibiotic resistance, but are coming at it from different angles…

Show notes:

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

Benjamin Thompson

Image credit: Phalinn Ooi on Flickr under CC BY 2.0
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Could combining drugs with different targets increase resistance?

ResearchBlogging.org5747870989_27780db120_bBacterial and viral infections are often treated using multiple drugs at once. This is thought to have many advantages, including a lower risk of drug resistance. But according to a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), combining drugs that reach different parts of the body may speed up the evolution of multi-drug resistance, compared to using drugs that reach the same parts of the body.

When you receive an injection or swallow a tablet for an infection, the drug you’re given won’t reach every part of your body to the same extent. Certain parts of your anatomy or certain types of cell may be more difficult for drug molecules to reach than others, meaning there will always be areas in your body where the drug fails to reach therapeutic concentrations. This is known as “imperfect drug penetration”.

To get over this problem, doctors might prescribe you two drugs that, between them, have a greater overall coverage – ensuring that all parts of the body receive treatment. But combining drugs which have different penetrations could actually make multi-drug treatment less effective, by accelerating the emergence of drug resistance.

“Your intuition would be that more drug penetration is always better,” says Pleuni Pennings from San Francisco State University, co-author of the PNAS paper. “But our results suggest that this might not be the case.” Continue reading

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