What is the Nagoya Protocol? How does it relate to microbiology?

Microbiology is an interconnected discipline, with researchers all over the world sharing samples and genetic data at an ever increasing pace. But how can we ensure that everyone can also benefit from any discoveries made? In this post, Katie Beckett from the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) tells us about the Nagoya Protocol, which aims to ensure that research benefits are shared in an equitable way.

Throughout human history, micro-organisms have played a critical role in the development of human society. From brewing beer to the Black Death, their impact has been significant, and microbiologists such as van Leeuwenhoek and Fleming have earned their place in history. Today, microbiology is a fundamental discipline in driving forward innovative research and new product development, such as producing new antibiotics to combat increasing drug resistance or studies into the effects of microbial communities on carbon and nitrogen cycles and resulting impacts on climate change. Microbiology is applied across a whole host of sectors and research areas with the micro-organisms themselves often being sourced from specialist collections around the world. In the first instance however, these genetic resources come from nature, existing in every part of the global biosphere – from the soil, atmosphere, and ocean, to hot springs and rock formations.

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Podcast: Good Germs, Bad Germs

Have you ever wondered about the kinds of microbes that are present in your kitchen? In the fruit bowl or the fridge, on your chopping boards or cleaning cloths?

Good Germs Bad Germs is a citizen science project from the University of Oxford, allowing people to experiment on the microbial life in their kitchens and to visualise the results.

This month, we went to Oxford to visit one of the households taking part in the project, and spoke to researchers Dr Jamie Lorimer and Dr Beth Greenhough about they’ve found.

More information at www.goodgerms.org

Anand Jagatia

Image courtesy of the researchers
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New microbes found in vultures, rattlesnakes and Japanese burial mounds

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. 

There are plenty of exciting finds this month so let’s dive straight in.

Researchers from China have discovered two new species of bacteria from two different species of Old World vulture in the Tibetan Plateau. Vultures may be a source of infectious pathogens as they feed on rotting carcasses and also scavenge the corpses from sky burials. To study the microbiome of vultures in this part of the world, the team live-captured wild birds and took rectal swabs, isolating the bacteria Actinomyces liubingyangii and Actinomyces vulturis.

 A team from the US has isolated a bacterium from a timber rattlesnake in Minnesota, which they name Enterococcus crotali. Timber rattlesnakes are an animal we’ve written about before, as they’re one of the species that has been hit hard by snake fungal disease in North America. Continue reading

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A killer snake fungus has been found in wild British snakes for the first time

Back in April 2016, we wrote about an emerging disease that’s been killing wild snake populations in North America. Snake fungal disease, or SFD, is an infection that leads to blisters and lesions on snakes’ skin, turning scales yellow and crusty, and making eyes clouded and milky. Last year, scientists identified that the disease is caused by Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, a fungus that eats the keratin in infected tissue (the same protein found in nails and hair, although O. ophiodiicola only infects snakes).

SFD is of growing concern in the eastern US, where it’s causing declines in already fragile snake populations. Now, for the first time, SFD has been detected in wild snakes outside America – here in Great Britain it’s been found in grass snakes, while in mainland Europe a single infected dice snake has been identified.

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Parliamentary Links Day 2017

Each year, the Royal Society of Biology organises ‘Parliamentary Links Day’, an event that brings together parliamentarians and the scientific community to discuss matters of importance to both. The 2017 event was attended by several Microbiology Society staff and members, including Dr Karen Robinson from the University of Nottingham, who gave us her thoughts about the day.

The theme of this year’s Parliamentary Links Day was ‘UK Science and Global Opportunities’ – a subject close to my heart, since I have been concerned about the impact of Brexit on PhD students and research scientists at the University of Nottingham. Many of the postdocs and research students in my building are from other EU countries and these people have expertise and skills that are in high demand. Understandably, there is concern from this group about what will happen when the UK withdraws from the EU, and I was hoping that Links Day would provide some information to ease their insecurities a little.

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Researchers are hunting for viruses that could cause the next pandemic

Scientists around the world are looking for the next SARS or MERS virus in wildlife from disease emergence ‘hotspots’.

giulia/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In late 2002, a new kind of lung infection began to emerge in the Guandong province of southern China. Patients came down with a fever, headaches and muscle pains, before developing a cough and difficulty breathing. As the disease began to spread further afield, images of people in surgical facemasks became a common sight on the news, and soon SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) developed into the first global pandemic of the 21st century. In total, the outbreak infected more than 8,000 people in 27 countries, leaving over 700 dead.

By July 2003, human-to-human transmission chains of SARS had been successfully broken, and the WHO announced that the pandemic was over. But scientists still didn’t know where the virus had come from. Initial theories focused on infected animals sold in Guandong’s markets. SARS was detected in ferret-badgers, raccoon dogs and mongoose-like creatures known as civets, which were slaughtered in their thousands when SARS returned to the country in 2004.

Large numbers of civets are farmed for food in China (they are used to make a delicacy called “dragon tiger phoenix soup”), but further research cast doubt on the idea that they were the original source of the disease. Although civets from animal markets tested positive for SARS, both farmed and wild populations of these animals were largely virus-free. This ruled them out as the natural reservoir for the virus, and implied that the overcrowded mixing of animals in the markets could have led to civets becoming infected by another, unknown host.

Researchers began searching local wildlife species for related pathogens that belonged to the same family as SARS – the coronaviruses. Primates, rodents and bats all seemed like possible suspects, and then, in 2005, two teams independently discovered SARS-like viruses in Chinese horseshoe bats. Their suspicions weren’t confirmed until 10 years after the initial outbreak, when a live coronavirus 99.9% similar to SARS was found inside a bat, confirming these flying mammals as the most likely origin of the deadly disease. Continue reading

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Microbiology Society Prize Medal 2017: Professor Michael Rossmann

At the Microbiology Society’s Annual Conference 2017, Professor Michael Rossman from Purdue University was awarded our Prize Medal. You can watch his talk ‘A personal history of structural virology’ below. In this post, David Bhella gives an overview of Michael’s talk and the research it contains.

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