Tag Archives: io9

Why Science Nerds Wear Glasses.

24 Oct

Ever wonder why science nerds wear glasses?
Recently, a contact lens wearing lass was infected by an amoeba which was infected by a virus which was infected by a virophage which was infected by a parasitic piece of DNA called a transpoviron. It’s like a microbial inception. (This article originally appeared on io9.com)

Woman with eye infection had an entire microbial ecosystem in her contact lens solution

by George Dvorsky

There’s a reason why optometrists say you should regularly replenish your contact lens solution and throw out your lenses after the expiry date. Last year, a young woman contracted an eye infection after using tap water to dilute her cleaning solution, and while wearing contact lenses that were two months past their expiry date. Subsequent analysis of her lens solution revealed an entire cornucopia of microorganisms that were spawned from a single amoeba, including a giant virus that was also infected with a virus — and a piece of DNA that was capable of infecting both of them.

Thankfully, the woman’s condition, keratitis, was not serious and was easily treatable — but the subsequent analysis of her contaminated lens solution was quite revealing, if not disturbing.

The research, which was conducted by Bernard La Scola and Christelle Desnues, was initially concerned with an amoeba they found in the fluid. But after looking at the amoeba more carefully, the researchers discovered that it hosted two different microorganisms, including a giant virus that had never been seen before (what is now called the Lentille virus).

This Lentille virus, after infecting the amoeba, created a kind of “virus factory” where its genetic material was copied, thus spawning new viruses that were architected from its genetic script.

Now, if this wasn’t surprising enough, the researchers also discovered that the Lentille virus was also infected with a virus, what’s called a virophage. This virus-within-a-virus, named Sputnik 2, is only capable of reproducing in cells infected by other viruses (in this case, the infected amoeba). Amoebas that are infected with this virus continue to release virophage particles, which means the virus can continue to infect other amoebas on their own.

But there’s still more: Both the giant Lentille virus and Sputnik 2 virophage contained even smaller parasites called transpovirons — highly mobile chunks of DNA that can relocate themselves into the genomes of viruses and tuck themselves away inside of virophages.

So, in summary, the researchers discovered that a transmissible DNA sequence managed to find its way into a virophage (and potentially the giant virus itself), which in turn latched onto a giant virus, which then infected an amoeba — an amoeba that eventually found its way into the eye of a 17-year old girl.
You can read the entire study at PNAS.

Flesh-Eating Bacteria

10 Apr

I was gearing up to write a super-awesome article on flesh eating bacteria! It’s something everyone has heard about, though I can guarantee you that it’s not as scary as flesh-eating mould. (Flesh eating mould is one of the few things that truly grosses me out. I can handle flesh eating bacteria any day of the week, but the flesh eating mould is far more insidious. But that’s a tale for another day.)

However, Keith Veronese of I09 beat me to it, and did a far better job that I would have done. I added a few pictures, because there is no such thing as too many bacteria photos. Enjoy!

Does flesh-eating bacteria really make a meal out of you?

You first notice a bump — a tender, cherry red bruise. Over the next 12 hours, the center of this painful spot on your leg becomes dark violet in color. A day later this raised red bump ruptures and fluid oozes forth. I hope you are on the way to the hospital at this point, because flesh-eating bacteria might be running amok in your body.

These microbes have appeared in such films as the late-night scifi flick Cube Zero, in which a prisoner is sprayed with flesh-eating bacteria and melts before the audience’s eyes. But does this horrifying bacteria act as quickly as depicted in movies? And more importantly, do the bacteria actually dine on your flesh?

Does flesh-eating bacteria really make a meal out of you?

Flesh-eating bacteria formally goes by the mildly less frighting name necrotizing fasciitis in medical circles. Necrotizing fasciitis occurs through a cascading series of events, with the bacteria Clostridium perfringens and Streptococcus pyogenes commonly initiating the infection. The bacteria often enter through an open wound, particularly when the wound is left exposed in a foreign environment like seawater or sewage.

These bacteria lurk in benign places — a 14-year-old in South Carolina contracted the illness in2009 after removing rocks from the bottom of a local lake. He lost half of his palate, a portion of his nose, and several teeth as surgeons extracted flesh to prevent spreading of the bacteria. In another incident, the guitarist of the venerable thrash metal band Slayer contracted the diseasefrom a spider bite in 2011.

In necrotizing fasciitis, the bacteria doesn’t actually eat the flesh of your body. The bacteria sneaking their way into your body spur on the release of proteins, which have a toxic effect in increased quantities. Phospholipase A2 and antigens released by the bacteria enter the cells of your skin, fat, and the connective tissue covering your muscles and begin wreaking havoc. (Here’s an image of a necrotizing fasciitis infection, but be forewarned that it’s very graphic. Like, Krokodil graphic.)

Phospholipase A2 is often found in snake venom and bee stings. When excess Phospholipase A2 appears in the body, your cells respond by releasing arachidonic acid. The presence of additional arachidonic acid disrupts cells, causing inflammation and pain. Fortunately, the effects of Phospholipase A2 can act as a warning sign for those with necrotizing fasciitis, hopefully leading an individual to seek out treatment.

The antigens released are commonly a type of superantigen that causes non-specific activation of T-cells, or those cells that are the primary line of defense in your body’s immune system. The over-activation of T-cells leads to the release of enormous quantities of cytokines (a small protein) at the infection site. The cytokines start a cell signalling cascade that begins the destruction of tissue cells in the region. The foreign bacteria causing necrotizing fasciitis do not eat your flesh, but they do something a little more sinister — these bacteria turn your flesh against you.

What happens should you contract necrotizing fasciitis? Patients must receive intravenous antibiotics immediately and a series of surgical operations to remove dead tissue. If the operations are unsuccessful and the necrotizing fasciitis is contained to an appendage, amputation of an infected arm or leg is the safest course. Patients with necrotizing fasciitis often undergo hyperbaric oxygen treatment, with the hope that the increased oxygen levels help the body heal.

Several hundred individuals contract necrotizing fasciitis in North America each year. Even with treatment, 25% of patients that contract necrotizing fasciitis die from complications of the disease. Years of skin grafts and pain management follow those who are lucky enough to survive.

Also, an even scarier type of necrotizing fasciitis, Fournier gangrene, targets the perineum, and more specifically, the groin and genitals. Modern cases are not common, but the historical autopsies suggest that the Roman emperor Galerius and Herod the Great died of this malady. A 69-year-old Herod suffered from a combination of kidney failure and Fournier gangrene, degrading his flesh to the point that worms and maggots moved in and out of the affected areas freely. Fournier gangrene, when it appears in modern society, carries a 40% mortality rate.

The top image is a promotional photo for AMC’s The Walking Dead. Images linked from the article: Late diagnosed necrotizing fasciitis as a cause of multiorgan dysfunction syndrome: A case report and the CDC.

Diseased Fashion

9 Mar

via io9:

How a disease from ancient Rome made its way into your sandblasted jeans

How a disease from ancient Rome made its way into your sandblasted jeans


 MAR 9, 2012 3:12 PM

Sandblasting jeans is a common way to give blue jeans a “distressed” look, with worn spots and artfully frayed holes. But the process of sandblasting is coming under fire due to its connection with silicosis, an incurable lung disease. Several manufactures and retail outlets are banning sandblasted jeans, but why? Let’s take a look at a silicosis, occupational practices leading to the disease, and its symptoms.

Silicosis, a work related disease
Silicosis in an occupational lung disease, one attained from prolonged exposure to small particles of silica found in sand or quartz.Exposure comes through regular use of pneumatic drills, stone cutting, glass manufacturing, and, in a recent application, giving jeans an intentionally distressed look though hours sandblasting.

The symptoms of silicosis include shortness of breath, persistent cough, weight loss, cracked nail beds, and, in some cases, a slight blue discoloration of the skin. A Turkish physician noted the correlation between sandblasting jeans and silicosis in a 2004 publication, beginning a movement to change modern sandblasting practices.

When small particles of silica are inhaled, they sediment in the base of the lungs and often calcify. Lack of ventilation and personal protection (workers often wear only a disposable paper mask like the one above) combined with long exposure periods lead to silicosis.

Most jeans-related sandblasting operations take place in poor areas, confinement to a small three by two foot area and long work weeks (65-70 hours), with most workers using only a disposable mouth and nose mask as protection. The silica leaves a fine layers on the body and hair as well, posing an exposure problem even after the individual leaves work.

The ancient Rome connection
Silicosis is not a new disease, as the Romans recognized that respiratory problems accompanied mining work. Silicosis came to the forefront in the 1930s due to the Hawks Nest incident in the United States.Between 400 and 1,000 of the 3,000 total workers died from complication of silicosis after using pneumatic drills and explosives to bore a tunnel for hydroelectric use in West Virginia.

Thanks to increased vigilance and employee protection equipment, modern mining-related silicosis cases are practically non-existent in the United States. Strangely, silicosis is on the rise for dental technicians, with four silicosis related deaths occurring in Turkey during 2011.

Silicosis is Incurable
There is no cure for silicosis, but only a few means of symptom alleviation, as there is no way to remove the silica deposits from the lungs. Administration of antibiotics can alleviate bacterial infections accompanying silicosis and bronchoalveolar lavage can loosen deposits in the lung. After contracting silicosis, one out of three individuals dies within five years.

How a disease from ancient Rome made its way into your sandblasted jeans50 Recent deaths in Turkey
Although Turkey banned the practice of sandblasting jeans in 2009, over 4,000 people within the country are afflicted with silicosis and a 50th citizen died from the lung disease in February of 2012.

The practice is still common in Bangladesh, India, and China. As many as 25,000 people die from silicosis and its complications in China each year.

Several designers and retail outlets (TargetGapWal-MartLeviVersaceH& M) are joining together to ban the practice in lieu of safer practices like physically scraping the jeans to give a distressed look. Dolce & Gabbana is one of the few major designers still using sandblasting to manufacture jeans.

Top image by Allison Joyce at Mother Jones. Images courtesy of EcouterreDKNY, and the AP. Sources linked within the article

Behold: The Beauty of The Naked Mole Rat

8 Mar

Robert Gonzalez of io9 wrote a charming article about naked mole rats, which are awesome little creatures that are basically the Betty White of the underworld.

10 Reasons Naked Mole Rats Will Inherit the Earth


Too long have cockroaches been regarded as the heirs to the planet, in the event of a huge cataclysm that drives humans to extinction. Today, we present for your consideration an alternative: the naked mole rat.

The naked mole rat (or NMR, as we like to call it) is an unusual species. It’s a poorly understood species. And it is also a downright unsightly species — to the point that it is almost cute in its unattractiveness. But make no mistake: naked mole rats are extraordinary animals, and these little saber-toothed-sausages are in it for the long haul.

10. Naked mole rats are the ideal underground organism
Let’s start with the basics, shall we? You may have noticed that many of the locations on our list of places to ride out the apocalypse are tunnels, bunkers, and subterranean vaults. Notice a pattern?

Come the end of the world, the safest place will likely be underground. Thanks to a variety of physiological neurological adaptations (which you’ll learn more about below), the naked mole rat has evolved to be one very successful subterranean creature, and, by extension, one of the most ideal post-apocalyptic organisms imaginable.

9. Naked mole rats are masterful bomb-shelter builders
Case in point: naked mole rats know how to build a good bunker. In fact, these rodents travel exclusively below ground. Individual NMR colonies can range in size anywhere from 20 to 300 individuals, but these populations thrive in vast, intricately organized burrow systems that can cover an area equivalent to twenty football fields. There are specialized subterranean chambers specifically dedicated to rearing offspring, storing food, and eliminating bodily waste — there are even major “highway systems” — complete with on-ramps and off-ramps — that allow for more than one animal to travel quickly over vast underground distances.

8. Naked mole rats can run backwards as fast as they do forwards
This might sound like little more than a neat trick, but it’s actually a very practical skill — imagine being able to retreat from a threat while still being able to defend yourself. Naked mole rats can do that. And here’s what’s really cool: this enviable skill is made possible by rows of sensory hairs along their bodies and tails that allow them to “see” while back-pedaling; and said sensory hairs belie another advantageous adaptation:

7. Naked mole rats are “extreme sensory specialists”
That’s what researchers Kenneth Catania and Michael S. Remple call the hairless little rodents in this 2002 PNAS paper, which examines the rodents’ extraordinary brain organization. Their findings suggest that over the course of their evolution, the brains of naked mole rats have been completely overhauled in a way that makes them perfectly suited for subterranean life. For example, note the researchers, the somatosensory cortex in a naked mole rat encompasses virtually the entire region of the brain that is usually devoted to vision. This allows the NMR to dedicate more brain power to a variety of other perceptive abilities. This nightmarish depiction (also borrowed from the researchers’ paper), reflects the percentage of the cortex devoted to a variety of different sensory organs. Good luck finding the eyes.

6. A naked mole rat’s teeth function like a biological swiss army knife
The first thing you’ll probably notice about the image above is that almost a third of the rodent’s somatosensory brain power is devoted to its incisors. As we mentioned earlier, naked mole rats are impressive diggers, but to devote a third of your somatosensory system to digging — and digging only — would be an immense waste of cognitive power. Fortunately, these incisors do more than excavate tunnels. Slow-motion analysis has revealed that mole rats can actually move their lower pair of incisors independently of one another (not unlike a pair of chopsticks). This allows NMRs to interact with one another in a social context, carry and manipulate food and other objects, move and care for their young, and — obviously — feed.10 Reasons Naked Mole Rats Will Inherit the Earth

5. Naked Mole Rats are eusocial
The naked mole rat is one of only two known eusocial mammals on Earth (the other, incidentally, is another species of mole rat); in other words: naked mole rats live in colonies, like ants. Each colony is presided over by a single queen who breeds with a few select males. Eusocial creatures are notoriously gifted at operating as a functional unit that is greater than the sum of its parts, foraging for resources, and looking after their own — three great qualities for a species striving to survive in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

4. Naked mole rats know how to use tools
The naked mole rat’s teeth may be ideal for digging, but all that rooting around is bound to stir up some unpleasant, breathable particles. To help keep their respiratory systems clear, NMR’s have actually been observed placing wood chips or tuber husks behind their incisors and in front of their lips. Researchers hypothesize that this makeshift face mask helps prevent choking, or the inhalation of foreign material. The NMR’s purposeful use of the wood chip during activities that stir fine particulate debris demonstrates its capacity for tool use — a true testament to the species’ intelligence and adaptability.

3. Naked mole rats laugh in the face of cancer
Cancer has never been observed in a naked mole rat, a fact that researchers think may have something to do with a tumor suppressor gene that codes for a protein named p16Ink4a. The p16 protein, like p27 in humans, works by keeping groups of cells (like pre-cancerous growths) in check, and prevents them from proliferating. The difference is that while humans rely predominantly on p27, naked mole rats rely on both. Cell biologist Vera Gorbunova, who identified p16’s function in NMRs, described it as “an additional checkpoint” in the body’s defense against cancer, which sounds like it would be a pretty handy biological asset in a (potentially nuclear-induced) post-apocalyptic scenario. [Picture by Ron Austing]

2. Naked mole rats are the longest-living rodents on Earth
Naked mole rats have been known to live as long as 28 years — decades longer than is typical of other rodents. The key to NMR-longevity has puzzled scientists for years, but one hypothesis states that it has to do with their ability to shut down their already slow metabolisms when the going gets tough — during times of low food availability, or (who knows?) the aftermath of a massive impact event. Researcher Stan Braude, who studies NMRs at Washington University,describes this adaptation particularly well:

“[One way] to think of it is, their gross life span might be 28 years, but their metabolism is going in these short bursts, so maybe the net damage is only 3 or 4 years of net use… They’re living their life in pulses.”

1. The skin of a naked mole rat cannot detect pain — even from an acid burn
Naked mole rats lack a neurotransmitter called substance P that in every other mammal helps relay pain signals from the skin to the central nervous system. They also have mutations in a gene that codes for a protein responsible forregulating their ability to sense the pain of an acid burn. Scientists think that NMRs have evolved these mechanisms of pain tolerance to withstand the highly acidic environments of their underground habitats — but the ability to carry on in the face of pain could prove an invaluable asset when the rest of the world is busy falling to pieces.

Click here to check out the original article. Top image via The Fallout Wiki and DeviantART/justicetoall; eusocial mole rats via; pain-free NMR via; all other image sources cited in-post