New to science: April 2016

Matanuska_Glacier_mouthEach month, the Microbiology Society 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 fullpapers are available to journal subscribers, but the abstracts are free to read.

It’s that time again where we share some of the microbial discoveries that have been made this month.

First up is Nocardia camponoti, a novel species of actinomycete. The bacterium was
isolated from the head of an ant by a team of Chinese researchers in Beijing.

Also from the insect world, microbiologists from India have isolated a new species from the gut of a wood-eating cockroach, which they call Alkalispirochaeta cellulosivorans. The researchers describe the species as being able to digest cellulose (the component of plant material which we can’t digest) and is tolerant of alkaline and salty environments.

Virgibacillus kapii is the name proposed for a new species of bacteria isolated from Thai shrimp paste. The organism was discovered by a team of researchers from Thailand and Japan. Like other fermented fish products, shrimp paste is rather salty, which provides a perfect environment for halophilic (salt-loving) bacteria to thrive in.

A team of scientists from Hungary have discovered the species Taibaiella coffeeisoli from the soil of a coffee plantation in Tanzania. The strain in question was isolated from the soil of a newly planted coffee tree, Coffea arabica.

A team of Norwegian researchers have isolated Abyssivirga alkaniphila from a deep sea hydrothermal vent system. Meanwhile, a team from China has found a new species of Proteobacteria, Psychrobacter glaciei, from the ice core of an Arctic glacier.

And my favourite for this month: Terasakiella brassicae is a new species of bacteria found in the wastewater of a pickle-processing factory by Chinese researchers. The name comes from the word Brassica, the genus name of cabbage – this refers to the pickle ingredients that the strain was isolated from.

Anand Jagatia

Image credit: Sbork on Wikimedia under CC BY-SA 3.0
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Microbe Talk: April 2016

Can parasitic worms treat inflammatory diseases?

Trichuris_trichiuraIn 2010, a medical case report was published about a man with inflammatory bowel disease. The man had a serious case of a condition called ulcerative colitis, and was facing the prospect of having a section of his intestine completely removed.

But remarkably, the man was able to cure himself and achieve almost complete remission – by infecting himself with parasitic worms.

This month’s episode is about new research which may shed light on how a parasite can end up curing disease, rather than causing it.

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

Anand Jagatia

Ryan Cross – Inso
Keinzweiter – Mircoobee
Asthmatic Astronaut – Body Language
Jahazzar – sketch (vlad)
Asthmatic Astronaut – UP
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An emerging fungal disease is killing snakes in the US

6314473035_c3902d6e8e_zOphidiomyces ophidiicola is an emerging pathogen that causes snake fungal disease, a potentially fatal infection spreading rapidly across North America. We spoke to microbiologist Dr Jeffrey Lorch about his recent work to identify the fungus causing the disease.

For the past decade, dead snakes have been turning up in the dozens across the Eastern United States, all afflicted by the same mysterious illness. The animals have lesions and blisters along their length, and their scales are thickened and yellow, making their skin rough and crusty. The snakes’ snouts can become so swollen that the jaws misalign, and the eyes sometimes develop a strange milky coating.

The first reports of this disease came in 2006, when an already fragile population of timber rattlesnakes in New Hampshire was hit by an unknown pathogen that decimated the population, from forty down to just nineteen. Then, in 2008, scientists analysed the bodies of four dead snakes in Illinois and identified what they suspected was responsible – a fungus in their infected tissue that feeds off keratin, the protein that forms hair, nails and snake scales.

Snake fungal disease (SFD), as the infection became known, has since spread across 16 States and moved across the border into Canada. The problem is of growing concern for conservationists, especially as wild snake populations are currently thought to be in global decline. But before scientists can begin to tackle the disease, they need to determine for certain what causes it.

Eastern racer (Coluber constrictor) showing signs of fungal skin infection. Image credit: D.E. Green, USGS National Wildlife Health Center

“Even though we had a strong correlation between the fungus and the disease, it was still just a correlation,” explains Dr Jeffrey Lorch, who runs the Diagnostic Microbiology Lab at the National Wildlife Health Center in the US. “So we wanted to know, is it just a fungus that takes advantage of necrotic [dead] skin, and something else is actually causing the lesions?”

To find out, Jeff and his team ran an experiment in the lab. They infected healthy red corn snakes with the fungus thought to be the culprit, Ophidiomyces ophidiicola. And, sure enough, after a few days the snakes began to show classic signs of SFD.

“Pretty much every snake we infected got the disease, but the control snakes didn’t,” says Jeff. “Snakes developed lesions relatively quickly, often within a few days. Over the next weeks, the lesions got progressively worse, and the snakes would end up shedding their skin to try to clear the infection.” Snakes will often shed to purge themselves of parasites, and infected snakes in the experiment shed twice as often as healthy snakes.


Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) with crusty and thickened scales overlaying raised blisters. Image credit: D.E. Green, USGS National Wildlife Health Center

But it’s not always as easy for snakes in the wild to shed their skin. For one thing, it’s often cooler, so the animals’ metabolisms will be lower.  As well as this, the fungus may interfere with the snakes’ eating habits – wild snakes with SFD are often emaciated through lack of food, and in the experiment some of the infected snakes displayed a loss of appetite. This combination means it’s likely that infected snakes in the wild would lack the energy to grow new skin and shed their old one, resulting in a feedback loop that makes the animal sicker and even less able to fight off infection.

Loss of appetite wasn’t the only strange behaviour that Jeff and his team observed. Some of the snakes began to rest in conspicuous areas of their enclosures, instead of remaining concealed in the sheltered parts. This is unusual behaviour for snakes, which are usually quite elusive but Jeff says it’s quite common in wild snakes with SFD. People have even documented infected snakes coming out during winter when they should be hibernating.

One theory is that the snakes are trying to bask. As snakes are cold-blooded and can’t regulate their own body temperature, basking could be a way to raise their metabolism, allowing them to better fight off the infection. “In reptiles generally, the immune system functions at a certain preferred temperature,” explains Jeff. “Lizards for example have been observed to seek out warm temperatures to induce fever. The fungus can’t grow above 37ºC, so if the snakes can survive that, they could kill the fungus.”

This kind of behaviour isn’t currently well documented in snakes. But Jeff says that his team could run future experiments to see if infected snakes seek out warmer temperatures and weather that helps them fight disease.

Now that there is an established link between O. ophidiicola and SFD, the next steps will be to understand why the disease is emerging right now, and where it might have come from. Scientists aren’t sure whether the fungus has been introduced to affected areas, or has always been present and is only now causing serious disease. Factors such as climate change and fragmentation of the snakes’ natural habitats could also mean that wild populations are increasingly finding themselves in environmental microclimates that encourage infection.

If environmental changes are driving disease, Jeff and his colleagues are concerned that this could just be the tip of the iceberg. Snake conservation is tricky at the best of times, not least because snakes are so cryptic. It’s harder to monitor and track wild snake numbers compared to other animals, which means that information on population sizes isn’t easy to come by. But people’s preconceptions about the animals don’t help either.

“When I first starting studying SFD, I thought it was going to be challenging to get people to care,” admits Jeff. “Interest isn’t always there for snakes versus more charismatic animals. Particularly in the US, they’re quite maligned as wildlife, and you still get people who think snake populations should be wiped out.

“But overall, I’ve been surprised by the favourable reaction, and I think human viewpoints on snakes are changing. I think we also need more research into the economic and ecosystem services that snakes provide – they can form an important base of the food chain, and they eat large numbers of rodents. So their impact on preventing destruction of crops and reducing the spread of disease from other animals may be underappreciated.”

Anand Jagatia

Image credit: Frupus on Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0
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Vaccines: From the cowshed to the clinic

Vaccines are an essential component of public health, keeping people safe against disease. But how do they work, how are they manufactured and what are the challenges involved? We spoke to Dr Sarah Gilbert from the Jenner Institute to find out more.

Churchyards and corpses

In the 1700s, smallpox was one of the word’s biggest killers, causing an estimated 400,000 deaths every year in Europe alone. About a third of the survivors went blind, and most were left with horrific, disfiguring scars. The disease held a special terror for people, as illustrated in this passage from Macaulay’s The History of England from the Accession of James II (1848):

”The smallpox was always present, filling the churchyards with corpses, tormenting with constant fears all whom it had stricken, leaving on those whose lives it spared the hideous traces of its power, turning the babe into a changeling at which the mother shuddered, and making the eyes and cheeks of the bighearted maiden objects of horror to the lover.”

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Voice of the Future 2016

Last month the UK Houses of Parliament hosted the Royal Society of Biology’s Annual Voice of the Future event, in which early career scientists and engineers grilled leading politicians and civil servants about science policy. This year, the Microbiology Society sponsored five researchers to attend, including Dr Rachel Edgar from the University of Cambridge. Here, she gives us her thoughts on the event.

Before attending Voice of the Future (VoF), my perception of ‘science policy’ was quite narrow. I’d envisaged politicians’ discussions focusing on scientific challenges such as food security, microbial resistance and climate change, or perhaps science funding and how political events like the EU referendum might impact research. Subjects covered extensively in the media had shaped my understanding of the interaction between science and government.

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Annual Conference 2016: the Twitter story

Annual Conference 2016The Microbiology Society’s 2016 Annual Conference took place from 21–24 March at the Arena and Convention Centre in Liverpool, UK. This year was our biggest, and arguably best, yet – the feedback we’ve received so far, and the fact that the event hashtag #Microbio16 was trending on Twitter for four days, certainly suggests so! We’ve collected some highlights from the thousands of tweets sent out during the Conference.

We started with a very successful pre-Conference networking workshop on Sunday.

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New to science: March 2016

Each month, the Microbiology Society publishes the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology (IJSEM), 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.

Spring is sprung! Easter is behind us and the clocks have gone forward. The latest issue of IJSEM describes plenty of freshly discovered microbes, and we’ve selected a few of the highlights.

Scientists from Russia and the USA have isolated a hyperthermophilic archaeon from a hot spring in the Russian Far East. Thermogladius calderae was observed to grow between 80–95ºC and is named after the word ‘caldera’, which is a kind of volcanic crater. Continue reading

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