April 2017

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The Versatile Little Bean

Soybeans became widely popular in the last few decades. Low in fat, high in protein, a good substitute for meat, and sometimes fermented. This unassuming little bean has plenty of creative uses. Unfermented types of soy products include tofu, soymilk and in its purest, unprocessed form, edamame. Microbes transform soybeans into products as different as soy sauce, tempeh, natto, and miso.

When I first bought tempeh several years ago, I thought there was something wrong with it. A mysterious white substance glued soybeans together into a solid, congealed slab. It felt slimy and was full of grey spots. Little did I know at the time that microbes help make this tasty treat. (more…)

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Snapshots from the March for Science - Boston

For today, I’m taking a break from writing about microbiology. Thousands of people gathered in cities worldwide for the March for Science to support science, research, and evidence-based policy. Recent cuts in science research funding, climate change denial, and general disregard for the future of our planet and our health all fueled our need to do something. But the science march only reflects a greater issue: the public perception and understanding of science and its role in our lives. It shows a need for more science outreach, science education and the infrastructure to achieve these goals. Hopefully, the March for Science will spark conversations about the importance of science in our lives. It is only when the country as a whole support science that tangible outcomes in policy can occur. (more…)

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Meet a Microbiologist: Erica Hartmann

Erica’s foray into science didn’t specifically begin with microbiology. Her father worked at NASA and while accompanying him to work on “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” every year, she’s tried all sorts of things, even astronaut ice cream. She’s read a lot about science and her interest grew. “The Hot Zone especially scared the bejeezus out of me but was also fascinating,” she recalls. She grew up near Reston, Virginia, where Reston Virus (causes Ebola symptoms in non-human primates) was discovered. While she was in high school, she closely followed the race to sequence the human genome. “It felt hugely important and revolutionary, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Erica says. (more…)

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Timeshares are for bacteria too

Bacteria were once thought of as solitary individual organisms. We are finding out more and more that they behave quite contrary to this long-time perception. Bacteria form complex three-dimensional communities called biofilms. In biofilms, cells stick to each other and are encased in a sticky, slimy matrix proteins and sugars. It has been known for some time that cells within a biofilm communicate with one another. Now, researchers from the University of California San Diego and Universitat Pompeu Fabra determined for the first time, that neighboring biofilm communities communicate with one another to share resources. (more…)

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Why are pathogens rarely resistant to vaccines?

We have all heard the horrifying tales of incurable bacterial infections due to antibiotic resistance. But why don’t we see pathogens becoming resistant to vaccines? Intuitively, it seems that vaccines, like antibiotics, put selective pressure on pathogens. The selective force should drive the evolution of vaccine resistance, right? David Kennedy and Andrew Read explore this quandary in their recent publication in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Historically, when vaccine resistance arises, it takes much longer compared to antibiotic resistance. Vaccines created as early as the 1920s are still effective today while resistance to a new antibiotic can develop within a few years. Because the evolution of vaccine resistance is so rare, vaccines may be a solution to the drug resistance problems we face today. Vaccines reduce the need for antibiotic treatment and also decrease the number of cases and spread of infections. (more…)