Archives for category: Microbes

From The Baltimore Sun:

Randy White had just buried a daughter, dead at 30 with a brain tumor. Now his other daughter had been diagnosed with growths in her abdomen.

When doctors told White in 2009 that their conditions were likely caused by something in their environment, the Frederick native thought of Fort Detrick. His children had grown up near the Army base.

Detrick was home to the nation’s biological weapons program from the 1940s through the 1960s. It remains a key center for medical research.

“Anybody that lives in Frederick knows all the rumors,” White says. “It’s kind of like, ‘Fort Detrick, they created anthrax, we knew that, smallpox …’ It just clicked for me.”

For decades, Frederick residents had speculated about the possible effects of the experiments at the base on the health of the surrounding community. But it took a grieving father with scientists, lawyers and money — White says he has spent more than $1 million so far — to drag questions about contamination and cancer out into the open.

White hired epidemiologists and toxicologists to monitor the air, soil and water around Detrick. He asked neighbors about their health histories and paid for lab tests to measure the toxins in their blood. He shared his findings with government officials.

The county and state health departments are now studying the cancer rate within a two-mile radius of the base. The Army has released details of Agent Orange testing. And local, state and federal officials are meeting regularly with the community to discuss their progress.

“Without him standing there shaking his hands and dancing around, it would not have gotten this much attention,” says Jennifer Peppe Hahn, a survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, growths on her pancreas and thyroid, and breast cancer.

“When Randy came forward about his daughter’s death,” she says, “somebody had enough money and enough passion at that point that nobody could ignore it.”

White, a former evangelical pastor and a businessman who first contacted officials last year, is demanding information about activities at Fort Detrick past and present, an apology to the people he believes were sickened, and a congressional hearing “so this never, ever happens again in the United States of America.”

He also has filed a mass tort lawsuit. He has been joined by more than 100 fellow plaintiffs.

“I didn’t want to fight, but the fight kind of came to me,” says White, 53. “I had lost my daughter, and then my other daughter was so sick. Our whole motive behind this thing was just to bring resolve and full disclosure.”

The Army says it has no indication that Fort Detrick is currently contaminating its surroundings, and it is responding to the community’s concerns.

State health officials, who are studying the incidence of cancer in the area during the last two decades, say they have found no evidence of a cluster.

But White says the state’s cancer registry is incomplete and out of date. He says his own scientists have found continuing contamination.

“Everything I say is backed up by scientific fact,” he says. “It’s not something we just dream up. … We just want the truth.”

Fort Detrick is a 1,200-acre campus in northern Frederick that today is home to a variety of military and civilian organizations involved in medical research and development, including a National Cancer Institute facility. For years, it was known primarily for its work on biological warfare agents, including anthrax and smallpox.

Scientists developed and tested biological agents there from World War II until 1969, when President Richard Nixon banned research into offensive biological warfare. Since then, researchers have focused on defending against biological attack.

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From The Independent:

Our last line of defence against bacterial infections is fast becoming weakened by a growing number of deadly strains that are resistant to even the strongest antibiotics, according to new figures given to The Independent on Sunday by the Health Protection Agency (HPA).

The disturbing statistics reveal an explosion in cases of super-resistant strain of bacteria such as E.coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae, a cause of pneumonia and urinary tract infections, in less than five years.

Until 2008, there were fewer than five cases a year in the UK of bugs resistant to carbapenem, our most effective intravenous (IV) antibiotic. New statistics reveal how there have been 386 cases already this year, in what the HPA has called a “global public health concern”. Doctors are particularly concerned because carbapenems are often the last hope for hospital patients suffering from pneumonia and blood infections that other antibiotics have failed to treat. Such cases were unknown in the UK before 2003.

Years of over-prescribing antibiotics, bought over the counter in some countries, and their intensive use in animals, enabling resistant bacteria to enter the food chain, are among the factors behind the global spread. According to the latest figures from the World Health Organisation, some 25,000 people a year die of antibiotic-resistant infections in the European Union.

In a statement issued during a WHO conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, last week, the organisation warned that doctors and scientists throughout Europe fear the “reckless use of antibiotics” risks a “return to a pre-antibiotic era where simple infections do not respond to treatment, and routine operations and interventions become life-threatening.”

More than 50 countries signed up to a European action plan on antibiotic resistance, unveiled at the conference, which includes recommendations for greater surveillance of antibiotic resistance, stricter controls over the use of antibiotics, and improved infection control in hospitals and clinics.

“We know that now is the time to act. Antibiotic resistance is reaching unprecedented levels, and new antibiotics are not going to arrive quickly enough,” said Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO Regional Director for Europe. “There are now superbugs that do not respond to any drug,” she added.

Dr Alan Johnson, a clinical scientist and expert in antibiotic resistance at the HPA, warned delegates at its annual conference last week that the problem is making some infections harder and in some, cases, virtually impossible, to treat.

Speaking to the IoS, he said: “We’ve had a problem of antibiotic resistance for as long as we’ve had antibiotics. The big problem at the moment is, for certain types of bacteria, we are seeing problems of resistance emerging and we don’t actually have any new antibiotics in the pipeline to deal with them.”

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From Los Angeles Times:

We’ve all heard that the overuse of antibiotics is making them less effective and fueling the rise of dangerous drug-resistant bacteria. But did you know it may also be fueling the rise of obesity, diabetes, allergies and asthma?

So says Dr. Martin Blaser, microbiologist and infectious disease specialist at New York University Langone Medical Center who studies the myriad bacteria that live on and in our bodies. He explains his theory in a commentary published in Thursday’s edition of the journal Nature.

In recent years, scientists have developed a growing appreciation for the “microbiome,” the collection of mostly useful bacteria that help us digest food, metabolize key nutrients and ward off invading pathogens. Investigators have cataloged thousands of these organisms through the National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project, begun in 2008.

Blaser is interested in why so many bacteria have colonized the human body for so long – the simple fact that they have strongly suggests that they serve some useful purpose. But these bacteria have come under attack in the last 80 or so years thanks to the development of antibiotics. The drugs certainly deserve some of the credit for extending the U.S. lifespan, Blaser notes – a baby born today can expect to live 78 years, 15 years longer than a baby born in 1940. But in many respects, an antibiotic targets a particular disease the way a nuclear bomb targets a criminal, causing much collateral damage to things you’d rather not destroy.

“Antibiotics kill the bacteria we do want, as well as those we don’t,” Blaser writes. “Sometimes, our friendly flora never fully recover.”

And that can leave us more susceptible to various kinds of diseases, especially considering that the typical American is exposed to 10 to 20 antibiotics during childhood alone. Blaser points out that the rise (let along overuse) of antibiotics coincides with dramatic increases in the prevalence of allergies, asthma, Type 1 diabetes, obesity and inflammatory bowel disease. That isn’t proof that the two are related, but it’s a question worth exploring, he says.

Take the case of Helicobacter pylori. As Blaser explains, this bacterium was “the dominant microbe in the stomachs of almost all people” in the early 1900s. But 100 years later, it is found in less than 6% of American, Swedish and German kids. One likely reason is that a single course of amoxicillin or another antibiotic to treat an ear or respiratory infection can wipe out H. pylori 20% to 50% of the time.

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From Environment 360:

Consider the African rain dance. People in tribal costumes stamping the ground to make rain — it’s nonsense, you might say. Except that we now know it could actually work. If you have enough dancers, there may be no better way to make rain, because bugs in the soil and surface vegetation make exceptionally good cloud- and ice-condensation nuclei — and rain dances stir them up.

Microbes, it turns out, are the hidden players in the atmosphere, making clouds, causing rain, spreading diseases between continents, and maybe even changing climates as well. Eos, published by the American Geophysical Union, last month reported that bio-aerosols are “leading the high life.” In the Eos article, David Smith of the University of Washington and colleagues argue that microbes are “the most successful types of life on Earth” and are the unacknowledged players in many planetary processes, particularly in the atmosphere. It’s time we caught up with them.

Back in 1979, Russell Schnell of the University of Colorado was in western Kenya wondering why the tea plantations there held the world record for hailstorms. They occurred 132 days a year. He discovered that tiny particles of dead and decaying leaves in the soil bore a close resemblance to the tiny particles around which hailstones formed. They were, it turned out, far better adapted to the task even than man-made cloud seeding chemicals like silver iodide.

Schnell, who is now deputy director of the Global Monitoring Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, concluded that “the feet of hundreds of tea pickers going about their daily jobs” were to blame for the hail. By kicking the bits of leaf into the air, he said, the tea pickers must be providing the abundant ice-nucleators that created the hailstorms. He published in Tellus in 1982, revealing that the critical actors in this Kenyan drama were the bacteria, Pseudomonas syringae, that attached

‘Bioprecipitation’ is a hot topic, more so as we learn how much biological matter is in the atmosphere.

themselves to the leaves as they rotted — the tea pickers sent the leaf bits airborne as they walked the fields picking the tea leaves from the bushes.

Biologists have long known that many species of bacteria trigger frost damage on vegetation, with Pseudomonas syringae the most efficient. The bacteria have evolved a gene that promotes spontaneous ice nucleation at around minus 2 degrees Celsius, much warmer than would happen otherwise. Their ice-making skills allow them to break down the cell walls of the plants they feed on. But it seems they also use the same skill in clouds.

Mineral and salt particles are present in large numbers in clouds and can act as condensation nuclei. But many bacteria, as well as fungal spores and tiny algae, are the cloud condensation nuclei of choice because they can work at higher temperatures. Since the formation of ice is normally the first step in the creation of raindrops in clouds, they are probably critical in the creation of rain. “Numerous studies,” say Smith and his colleagues in Eos, “have shown that many… condensation nuclei responsible for climate and precipitation patterns are in fact airborne micro-organisms, living or dead.”

And that, Smith says, means any human activity that puts more bugs in the air is potentially a rain-making activity, whether it is tramping tea plantations or cooking up a big rain dance. “Exactly how higher concentrations of airborne micro-organisms will interact with other variables that drive weather and precipitation is a major unknown in the climate change equation,” he says.

Schnell’s original observation was largely ignored by the wider science community. But recent papers have made similar observations in other places. For instance, Brent Christner, a microbiologist at Louisiana State University, reported in Science in 2008 that he had found “ubiquitous and abundant” microbes in fresh snowfall sampled from Antarctica to Montana – between 70 and 100 percent of ice nucleators found in the snow were biological.

This, Christner points out, was especially remarkable since he was sampling snow in areas where there was no local vegetation. The microbes had traveled a long way to do their job. “It’s a wake-up call,” he says. “Biological particles do seem to play a very important role in generating snowfall and rain.”

Then in May this year, at a meeting of the American Society of Microbiology, Alexander Michaud of Montana State University in Bozeman reported finding high concentrations of bacteria in hailstones falling on his campus.

“Bioprecipitation” is a hot topic. And the more so as we learn how much biological matter there is in the atmosphere — more than 10,000 individual bacteria per cubic meter of air over the land, according to a 2009 study by Susannah Burrows of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany. These bacteria spend an average of about a week in the atmosphere; but while some stay close to the ground, others soar into the stratosphere, says Smith. Weather balloons have even found them in the mesosphere, up to 77 kilometers aloft, according to a forgotten study by Soviet scientist A. A. Imshenetsky, published in Applied and Environmental Biology as long ago as 1978 and uncovered by Smith.

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From Environmental Science & Technology:

The old adage that people are known by the company they keep probably doesn’t refer to the trillions of microbes living on the human body—but it might as well. Although you may be influenced by the thousands of individuals you will meet in your lifetime, at this very moment there are more bacteria hanging out just in the palms your hands than there are humans on Earth. And the astonishing diversity of microbes that inhabit every inch of your skin as well as your gut profoundly influences your quality of life—mostly for good—from the moment you are born until the day you die.

Humans rely on our human microbiome to perform essential functions, such as protecting us from persistent pathogens, building essential vitamins, and providing us with digestive enzymes that we need to break down plant fibers for energy. Many seemingly human characteristics are also partially shaped by our bacterial shell, such as whether we are skinny or fat and how we smell. The microbes cohabitating our body outnumber human cells by a factor of 10, making us actually “superorganisms” that use our own genetic repertoire as well as those of our microbial symbionts, says Julie Segre, who works on the Human Microbiome Project at the National Human Genome Research Institute, in Bethesda, Md. We just happen to look human because our human cells are much larger than bacterial cells (C&EN, July 20, 2009, page 43).

In the past three years, several large-scale projects to map the diversity and activities of our microbial family began, in hopes of finding connections between our microbiome, health, and disease. The National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project and the European Union’s Metagenomics of the Human Intestinal Tract (MetaHIT) program are probably two of the best known. These and other projects are starting to reveal that “every part of the body has its own ecosystem,” says Rob D. Knight, a biochemist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Our bodies provide microbes with a diversity of habitats, much like the multitude of landscapes on Earth. The damp rainforest of our armpits, the anaerobic swamp of our gut, and the dry surface of our elbows recruit unique populations of bacteria. As researchers investigate the microbes in these uncharted territories, they are learning about humanity’s rapport with our microbial cohabitants and how that relationship affects obesity, attraction, diet, drug metabolism, and ailments as diverse as Crohn’s disease and psoriasis.

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