Remembering our forebears

I like to tell a story to the BIO230 students at the start of the semester, describing why I find the science of Microbiology so endlessly fascinating. Many years ago, my father’s first teaching gig was teaching Microbiology to allied health students at the University of Delaware. He and the other Micro faculty would periodically rotate through the responsibility of a class at one of UD’s satellite campuses in southern Delaware, meaning that the family station wagon would be filled up with compound microscopes once a week. Before he’d take the scopes back to campus after the class was done, one or two of them would make it to the kitchen table, so that the family could take turns looking at what ever the class had been studying the day before, from bacteria to pond scum. I’ve wondered whether my siblings or our mother found this as exciting as the 12-year old me did, however I’ve never gotten tired of being able to see something with the microscope that was invisible without it. I point to this type of childhood experience as the start of my life with science.

Later, as I began to think more carefully about how scientists accomplish their tasks–in high school science classes for instance, and then all through college classes–Dad was an integral part of the learning process. For questions I had in high school biology, I would come to him with questions about biochemical pathways, about proteins and enzymes, about evolution. I recall learning about chlorophyll in class, and asking him later about how it worked. His explanation at the time was beyond what I was able to understand, but his gift was that he helped me to see the gaps in what I knew, showing me where I could proceed–this for me was the essence of learning.

In college and in graduate school I would send him drafts of papers that I was working on for his comments. As all former students of his could attest, Dad was very liberal, almost humorously so, with the red pen, and I suspect that some of them would be hugely frustrated with that level of marginal commentary. His written commentary was not restricted to student papers; he would sometimes buy two copies of books, and use one of them for extensive marking up inside. My papers would be essentially unrecognizable when they come back to me, however they were always better for the experience.

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of being sent his papers for my commentary. He’d been working recently on a paper celebrating the life of Albert Jan Kluyver1, who was a professor at Delft Technical University in the Netherlands in the first half of the 20th century. Kluyver’s contribution to Biology was to put forward the notion that there exists a “unity of life”, and we can see that unity in cellular biochemistry. Kluyver put forward the aphorism “from the butyric acid bacterium to the elephant; it is all the same” which to my mind, states this idea of “unity” in an elegant and poetic manner. Dad’s thesis with this paper was that modern Biology frequently misses some of these historical antecedents, and furthermore the focus purely on genetic unity that is currently in vogue does a serious disservice and sometimes distorts that earlier work. I think one of Dad’s intentions on bringing these scientists into today’s light is to remind us that many ideas in and out of science have been considered by others before, perhaps not with the same rigor or from the same direction that we might examine them today, but those earlier viewpoints have much that they can tell us.

It is a responsibility of the scientist then to carefully identify these antecedents and to celebrate them. My father, Rivers Singleton, Jr. died this past week, and we miss him. His legacy to us is to remind us that there are always questions that lead to good ideas which provoke further questions, but by carefully and thoughtfully examining those questions in the context of what has already been studied, they can become great ideas.

1. [The title of this post is from Dad’s paper on Kluyver; I am appropriating it here, in his memory]


Importance of Sleep for College Students

13James Gonzalez (11 AM Micro) has some sound advice for all college students, via an article in Science Daily. I might add that the recommendation also applies to college faculty, who generally feel that they don’t get nearly enough sleep either. Here is James’ summary:

In the modern day society, the importance of education is exemplified throughout the world. With that being said, this puts an enormous amount of pressure on college students to excel in order to get a profession in the field of their choosing when they graduate. The immense pressures of doing well in college are accompanied by a few factors that are essential to being balanced out in order to be successful. A perfect mix of studying and sleeping typically equates to a successful period in college. Although, with constant external factors, such as recreational activities and friends, bearing down on college students, it is sometimes difficult to find the perfect balance.

Recent studies have shown that people who sleep for shorter periods of time and go to bed very late at night are often overwhelmed with more negative thoughts than those who keep more regular sleeping hours. With this recent find, it is apparent that an adequate amount of sleep every night is essential for being successful in college. Getting enough quality sleep at the right times can help protect an individual’s health, physical health, quality of life, and safety. If sleep is beneficial for learning, then it only makes sense to get good quality sleep on a nightly basis. Studies have shown that a good night’s sleep enhances learning, problem solving skills, and creativity. A study at Binghamton University was conducted where 100 young adults were asked to complete a battery of questionnaires and two computerized tasks. This study measured how much the students worry, ruminate, or obsess about something, which all measures an individual repetitive negative thinking. The results revealed that the young adults who got shorter amount of sleep experienced more repetitive negative thoughts than others. This study proves that shorter amounts of sleep at night can be detrimental to an individual. In regards to a college student, getting an inadequate amount of sleep every night can result in repetitive negative thoughts, which is not conducive for higher level thinking.

College students who have poor sleeping patterns and habits can occasionally develop common sleeping disorders. The most frequently reported sleeping disorder is insomnia. Insomnia is characterized as trouble falling asleep, staying asleep during the night, or waking up too early in the morning. Some causes of insomnia include: going to bed at different times of the night, daytime napping, and spending too much time in bed while awake. These causes of insomnia are very common among college students because the time they go to bed always varies and is dependent on the amount of school work they have to do on any given day. If the student doesn’t have any assignments due the next day, then they have the opportunity to get good quality sleep for the night. On the contrary, if the student has an important assignment due the next day, then they are more susceptible to showing characteristics of insomnia. A study was performed that included 1,845 students at a large state university, in which each student filled out a Sleep-50 survey. The results showed that the group of students who had a GPA lower than 2.0 had a higher percentage of individuals at risk for insomnia. This study proves that not getting enough sleep can be disadvantageous for a college student. Although sometimes it feels like a necessity to stay up late and study, studies have proven that the college student will benefit more from getting good quality sleep.

With the studies that were presented, it is apparent that getting an adequate amount of sleep every night is paramount for a college student. It is important for every college student to find the right balance of everything in order to be successful. There are several simple changes to improve an individual’s sleeping habits that may prove to be beneficial. These simple changes consist of: establish a regular sleeping schedule, avoid physical exertion too close to bed time, and make the sleep environment as comfortable as possible. Finding the perfect blend of school work and sleep is imperative for every college student. Every student is unique, therefore each student needs to find what works best for him or her and utilize it to the best of their ability in order to be successful in college.


Some Holiday spirit for the class

In searching through the Internet this morning, I found some microbiology art to help us get into the season!

Staphylococcus and Serratia; Author(s):Tasha Sturm, Cabrillo College

Staphylococcus and Serratia; Author(s):Tasha Sturm, Cabrillo College

Another Christmas tree!

fungal-christmas; via Stephanie Mounaud, JCVI

Star: Talaromyces stipitatus; Tree: Aspergillus nidulans Ornaments: Penicillium marneffei; Trunk: Aspergillus terreus – via Stephanie Mounaud, JCVI

Some yummy cookies!

Not OK to eat in lab, via Ms. Humble

Not OK to eat in lab, via Ms. Humble

Uh, Ebola and MRSA!

Lots of yuckier examples if you click the picture, via Wendy Staples

Lots of yuckier examples if you click the picture, via Wendy Staples

How about a cancer vaccine?

201309-omag-vaccine-949x534Catherine Aumann (12:00 Micro) found an article in Science Daily describing new research to develop vaccines against various forms of cancer. The research from Washington University was recently published in the journal Nature. One of the problems with any cancer treatment is that it is a complicated disease, and any cancers from two individuals may be significantly different even if they are technically the same kind of cancer. What works for one patient may have little effect on another. What makes this approach novel is that it is a form of personalized medicine, and the methodology is using the patient’s own immune system to attack their own specific cancer. Here is Catherine’s summary:

Vaccines are hugely important in life today. Vaccines for the chicken pox and polio are administered and help people not become patients with the virus. A vaccine is administered to patients and alerts the patents immune system to attack that virus when it comes in contact with it. Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have been in the process of developing a vaccine for people with cancer. This vaccine works with the immune system to recognize the cancer cells in the body and destroy them. Each vaccine is personalized to each patient and their cancer.

Within the study patients with metastatic melanoma were evaluated and studies continue to be worked on in breast, brain, lung, and head and neck cancers. The vaccine is used and is able to recognize the cancer cells in the body to destroy them. The study originated in simulations, cultures and then in animals to test for their success. Mice were used as an example and the personalized vaccine cured 90% of their muscle cancer in an advanced stage.

To create this “personalized vaccine” DNA is taken from the patents normal tissue and from the cancerous tumor tissue. Researches then sequence the DNA of each to identify the differences or the mutant part of the cancer DNA.  This information is key to create the vaccine, the mutant genome is unique to the cancer and is the identifier for the vaccine and the immune system to fight against. So parts of the mutant genome is put in the vaccine.

This type of treatment is immune based and has been found to be successful in multiple cases. The cancer works by turning the T cells off in the body so the cancer is not attacked or destroyed by the body’s own immune system. Treatment that turns on the T cells can wreak havoc in the body and can attack cancer cells and healthy tissues. Chemotherapy is similar to this and it is clear that the treatment causes the body to attack more than what it needs to. This is evident through the loss of hair and bone density. The treatment in this study is more specific to just the cancer cells because of the DNA identity is involved.

The research shows that with the personalized vaccine it can safely attack the cancer and the T cells would be activated but only in regards to the cancer cells. This is so important for patients who are already immune comprised and wouldn’t be able to handle the immune system attacking the body more. These vaccines are specific and have been tested to cure advanced stages of cancer.

Vaccines have so much to offer in regards to multiple viruses and diseases but cancer is a whole other level. The research provides people with another option, a safer option to treat cancer. These personalized vaccines have a lot to offer but still has more research to be done.

New Hope for Autism Treatment

autism-the-world-from-a-different-perspective-72dpiJames Gonzales (11 AM Micro) found an article from Science Daily describing new research into autism. As James notes, currently autism research is focusing on a number of etiologic agents, including infectious agents, environmental factors, and genetic causes. His summary focuses on one of the most highly correlated genetic causes, and the surprising use of an anti-fungal medication to possibly reverse the effects of the disorder. Here is James’ summary:

Autism spectrum disorder is defined as a developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life, and affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills (National Library of Medicine, 2014). Autism spectrum disorder can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances (Autism Speaks, 2014). Although those who have Autism spectrum disorder tend to have disabilities, some with this disorder excel in visual skills, music, math and art.

Until recently, the causes of autism were unclear. The risk factors for autism consist of a combination of autism risk genes and environmental factors that influence brain development. The environmental factors that can lead to autism consist of: events before and during birth, advanced parental age, and maternal illness during pregnancy (Autism Speaks, 2014).

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 1 in 68 American children are identified to have some form of Autism spectrum disorder; it is estimated that 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls have been diagnosed, which is a 10 fold increase in prevalence in the past 40 years. Autism spectrum disorder affects over 3 million individuals in the United States (Autism Speaks, 2014). Among all the types of Autism spectrum disorder, Fragile X Syndrome is the most common genetic cause of this disorder. It affects around 1 in 4,000 boys and 1 in 6,000 girls. Currently, there is no cure (McGill University, 2014).

New hope of treating Fragile X Syndrome has arisen because of studies that have shown that a cancer drug candidate could reverse behavioral symptoms. This can be done with the aid of an anti-fungal called cerocosporamide that has shown to block the pathway and improve sociability in mice with the condition (McGill University, 2014). Although this was performed in mice rather than humans, this proves to be a stepping stone in the right direction for finding a cure.

Studies have shown that a key molecule in patients who have Fragile X Syndrome is eIF4E. The molecule eIF4E is responsible for excess production of protein in the brain and can cause behavioral symptoms that include learning disabilities, such as delays in speech and language development. An enzyme called MMP-9, produced by eIF4E, breaks down and re-orders the connections between brain cells. An excess in MMP-9 disrupts communication between brain cells, which leads to changes in behavior (McGill University, 2014). A team of scientists at McGill University has proven that treatment with the anti-fungal agent cerocosporamide blocks the activity of eIF4E, therefore reducing the amounts of MMP-9 in the brain; the lower amounts of MMP-9 have reversed the behavioral symptoms in mice with Fragile X Syndrome.

This discovery is novel to the medical world because it has lead to cured symptoms of Fragile X Syndrome, which  can lead to a cure in the future for humans to capitalize on. It is important for medical professionals to continue to research the benefits of cercosporamide and other anti-fungal agents in order to find cures to this rising disorder.

Is Ebola Going to be as easy to Avoid as the Flu?

Abby Nicodemus (11 AM Micro) found a news alert in Science Daily that describes some of the latest findings in the search for a vaccine against Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever. I would like to point out that in answer to Abby’s title for this piece that the answer is “yes”; Ebola is going to be as easy to avoid as the flu, and is in fact already easier to avoid than the flu. Snarky commentary aside, as Abby states that this approach will go far to address some of the public fears about this disease. Here is Abby’s summary:

Is it possible that one of the most feared diseases can be prevented by a simple injection? Becoming more aware of the outbreaks in Africa, the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has produced an experimental vaccine intended to fight against the advances of Ebola. The goal of this vaccine is to bring “this epidemic to an end” and to play a role in “preventing future large outbreaks”. This vaccination would calm many worries and put many American’s fears to rest. Perhaps the Ebola vaccination will gain popularity similar to that of the Influenza vaccine and it will protect the American population.

A clinical trial involving 20 healthy participants was conducted to observe the effects of this experimental vaccine. The main priority of the scientists is to ensure that this vaccine is safe, so it does not cause harm to the members of the trial. The participants of the trial were observed after being injected with the “Ebola vaccine”. Results showed that each of the 20 members responded positively to the vaccination, during which the vaccination also “produced immune system response”. The next step is to test whether or not the vaccine is effective in warding off Ebola. Based off the positive feedback from the first trial, scientists are continuing to work on and improve the existing Ebola vaccination.

Another set of trial participants were injected with two different doses of the vaccine and monitored for the formation of antibodies against Ebola. All participants of this trial built antibodies within four weeks. However a notable difference was noted in the number of antibodies between the higher dose and the lower dose, the higher dose causing the growth of more antibodies than the lower dose. An increase in the amount of T cells in the subject’s blood led to a better protection against the virus. Once animal test subjects, who were previously treated with the vaccine, were exposed to the virus, they appeared to remain protected.

With no serious side effects tagged along to the vaccine, apart from “two people who received the higher dose vaccine… [developing a] briefly lasting fever within a day of vaccination”, continuing innovation will make this vaccine more readily available.  According to Spiegel Online, scientists are frantically working to find the antidote to Ebola, so that infected persons in West Africa can begin to get treated. West Africa is the country with the biggest outbreak of Ebola, so it is important to target it first and foremost. Prevention of Ebola in West Africa will help to decrease the number of cases and to draw the epidemic to a close. One drawback involved in this research and work is the lack of funding. It is sometimes difficult for researchers to get the money needed to conduct research to aid in the termination of Ebola as a worldwide virus and concern.

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