By Julia Belluz - Friday, January 4, 2013 - 0 Comments
In a post about the most outrageous attacks on science in 2012, Science-ish asked you to pick the topic you’d like to see tackled first in the new year: you wanted the truth about antibiotics and superbugs.
It’s no wonder. The popular discourse about these rapidly multiplying, drug-resistant microbes is pretty freaky. An investigation by CBC’s Marketplace found deadly bacteria, like C. difficile, lurking in hotel rooms. Other stories have revealed that they are waiting to cuddle up with you in hospitals, and even peppering your chicken dinner.
Meanwhile, the British Medical Journal has reported that the dangers of superbugs may be over-hyped, turning poor germ-avoiding patients into hospital cleaners. But you, dear readers, know the cleansing light of evidence can wash away some of those fears. Here’s what the latest research tells us about antibiotics and superbugs:
By Kate Lunau - Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 2:00 PM - 0 Comments
Frogs evolved to fight off microbes. They may also provide us with the next class of antibiotics.
In his lab at United Arab Emirates University in Al-Ain, John Michael Conlon collects the secretions that ooze out of frog skins. Over the past 12 years, he’s collected hundreds of samples from frogs all around the world (the one Canadian frog in his collection is the wood frog). Conlon’s hoping to find an antibiotic that could fight off powerful “superbugs,” bacteria that our current drugs can’t beat. Frogs have spent millions of years evolving to fight off microbes, he explains: they live in a moist, warm environment, “an ideal place for the growth of bacteria and fungi.” After analyzing just 200 secretions, Conlon’s team has found over 100 antimicrobial substances.
With drug-resistant bacteria on the rise, they can’t work fast enough. Last month, The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal published a study showing that NDM-1, a gene that makes bacteria impervious to some of our strongest antibiotics and can jump from one bacterial strain to another, has the potential to become a global health problem. Thought to have originated in India, NDM-1 positive bacteria has already turned up in several countries, including Canada. Other superbugs, like MRSA (a staph bacteria that resists the methicillin antibiotic), are also a growing concern. “I’m English, and English people tend to deal in understatements, not exaggerations,” Conlon says dryly. “This situation really is serious.”
By Kate Lunau - Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 12:30 PM - 3 Comments
Strange new clues in the search for extraterrestrial life
This month marks the 50th anniversary of a day some say changed the course of science. In April 1960, Frank Drake, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia, turned a radio telescope (basically a huge antenna) toward two nearby stars. Drake thought he might—just might—hear signals broadcast from another planet. “For the first time in history, we had the chance of detecting a civilization no more advanced than our own,” he says today. “For all we knew, every star in the sky had a civilization that was transmitting.”
Of course, Drake didn’t hear any alien broadcasts. But his experiment (dubbed Project Ozma for the princess of the land of Oz) marked the beginnings of what’s called SETI: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He’s spent half a century trying to answer one of our most enduring questions: are we alone? Today, an answer seems tantalizingly close. Scientists have now found hundreds of previously unknown planets, and even water in our own solar system; the new Allen Telescope Array, with 350 interlinked radio dishes, promises to vastly improve the search. (It’s run by the University of California, Berkeley and the SETI Institute, where Drake now works.) If the universe really is teeming with life, though, why haven’t we found it yet?
Physicist Paul Davies, who directs Arizona State University’s Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, addresses this in his new book, The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence. “We need to think more creatively, and give up hope that some benevolent alien community will send us a ‘Hi guys’ message,” says Davies. After all, it takes time for radio signals to travel through space; if we found a civilization 1,000 light years away, it’d take at least 2,000 years for us to send them a message, and get a response back. (“However powerful their instruments, they can’t go faster than light,” Davies says.) Luckily, we don’t need to pick up a message to know for sure we’re not alone. “We merely have to see a footprint,” he says. And scientists are chasing that footprint not only in distant galaxies, but in our own solar system—and here on earth.
By Kate Lunau - Tuesday, November 11, 2008 at 11:28 AM - 2 Comments
In the current issue of Maclean’s, I wrote about a global effort to track…
In the current issue of Maclean’s, I wrote about a global effort to track all the bacteria that live in the human body—a monumental undertaking, since they outnumber our own cells by ten-to-one. It may gross people out to think we’re literally crawling with bugs, but a growing body of research suggests they’re crucial to our health: by now, microbes have been implicated in everything from periodontitis, to obesity, to premature labour.
Today, a new study caught my eye: it looks like bacteria even affect the taste of the food we eat. In the human mouth—where each tooth seems to have its own unique bacterial colony—microbes create food odours from odourless components, allowing us to fully taste fruits and veggies, a Swiss team is reporting.
Some fruits and vegetables release their characteristic odours only after being swallowed, researchers report in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (to be published Nov. 12). The team performed sensory tests on 30 trained panelists using grapes, onions and bell peppers, and found that the food’s odourless compounds are processed by bacteria in the mouth, which creates this so-called “retroaromatic” effect. “The mouth acts as a reactor, adding another dimension to odor perceptions,” they said.
Queen’s University’s Dr. Elaine Petrof recently told Maclean’s, “Everyone talks about going to the Amazon rainforest to look for new species. But we’ve got all this stuff inside our own bodies that we don’t know anything about.” As our research into the human microbiome continues, there’s no telling what we could find.