“Everything about microscopic life is upsetting, how can things so small be so important?”
— Isaac Asimov, writer and biochemist
In this episode on Microbiology, we touch on some of the fundamental techniques and practices that are used in laboratory microbial analysis of organisms like bacteria, viruses and fungi. We discuss the extreme conditions in which microbes can survive and thrive here on Earth. These microbes, that are the smallest living organisms on the planet, inhabit almost all corners of Earth’s land, sea and air.
The capacity of such species to tolerate extreme environments on Earth has sparked huge interest amongst scientists and begs the question whether there could be ‘bugs in space’. Turns out there are two candidates that have shown an amazing capacity to live in the harsh conditions of space. These are Deinococcus radiodurans which has survived at least three years in space unprotected, outside the ISS. Micro animals called Tardigrades have also been identified as some of the toughest we know of, and they have already gone to the moon.
Figuring out how these microbes resist radiation may give insight into how protection can be provided to people from various types of radiation exposure, from chemotherapy to sun damage. Research like this can also focus on the cosmic question of whether life as we know it truly originated here, or was our spectacular planet seeded with microbial life, hidden on meteors or comets, and spun to the outer reaches of our parent Milky Way galaxy, to settle on a barren rock that we all now call home?
We discuss the human, but also by extension the mammalian microbiome. Scientists now believe that there are three brains within this kingdom of animals. The intellectual thinking brain, the heart brain (newly discovered), and the digestive tract microbial brain.
As has been discovered, 75% of the human immune system is composed of microbes, or about 100 trillion live microorganisms mostly bacteria and viruses. The functional health of every microbe individual gives rise to the health and wellness of the entire ‘bacterial body’ or colony of cells. Intestinal microbiota, or gut flora promote normal Gastrointestinal (GI) function, protect the body from infection, and pull the levers of metabolism.
The scene now has been set for a follow-up episode where we will go into more depth on the human microbiome and how its vitality is so important for our immune health and function. In short, our system is microbial and they want us to be healthy. We hope you enjoy the episode!!
The central topic of this episode is microbiology. Microbiology is the study of all living organisms that are too small to be visible with the naked eye. This includes bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, prions, protozoa and algae, collectively known as ‘microbes’.
Check out this video to get an introduction on microbiology, the different microbes (such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc) and how to study them.
Found something interesting discussed in this episode? Chances are, we found it interesting too and we went off and did a bunch of reading online about it.
So why not dive further into the topic! Here are some handy links we think you might like.
Sir Alexander Fleming was a Scottish physician and microbiologist, best known for discovering the enzyme lysozyme and the world’s first broadly effective antibiotic substance which he named penicillin. He discovered lysozyme from his nasal discharge in 1922, and along with it a bacterium he named Micrococcus Lysodeikticus, later renamed Micrococcus luteus.
His discovery of what is later named benzylpenicillin from the mould Penicillium rubens in 1928, is described as the “single greatest victory ever achieved over disease.” For this discovery he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945 with Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain.
Check out the Wikipedia article on Sir Alexander Fleming to find out more about his life, his discovery and some myths still believed today.
Armillaria ostoyae is a species of plant-pathogenic fungus/mushroom and is the most common variant of mushroom, in the western United States. It is known as having grown possibly the largest living organism by area – estimated by scientists as a contiguous specimen found in the Oregon Malheur National Forest covering 9.6 km2 – and colloquially called the “Humongous fungus”. This one specimen is well over 8,000 years old.
Armillaria ostoyae grows and spreads primarily underground and the bulk of the organism lies in the ground, out of sight, making it invisible from the surface. In the autumn, this organism blooms “honey mushrooms” as surface fruits of the underground organism. It is just one example of a fungus, which as its own kingdom is a fascinating area to look into. Check out this BBC article on fungi for more interesting tidbits.
Dr Steven Gundry is an American doctor and author. He is a former cardiac surgeon and currently runs his own clinic, investigating the impact of diet on health. Gundry conducted cardiac surgery research in the 1990s and was a pioneer in infant heart transplant surgery.
After spending 20 odd years as a cardiac surgeon and researcher, he transitioned his career to focus more on diet and food-based health. Dr Gundry’s career change and this episodes conversation involving the microbiome provide plenty of food for thought on the idea of ‘you are what you eat’, and how this phrase might be closer to the truth in a literal sense that previously imagined.
It is estimated that there are as many as 10 times the amount of microorganism cells in the human body as there are actual human cells. They say that beauty is skin deep, but truth of our physical makeup goes much deeper than that. The Guardian has a great article on the human microbiome and how it may be the key to our health.
The Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve is a protected marine nature reserve located in the UNESCO World Heritage–listed Shark Bay in Western Australia. The 1,270 km2 nature reserve boasts the most diverse and abundant examples of living marine stromatolites in the world, monuments to life on Earth over 3,500 million years ago.
Stromatolites are layered sedimentary formations that are created by photosynthetic cyanobacteria. These microorganisms produce adhesive compounds that cement sand and other rocky materials to form mineral “microbial mats”. In turn, these mats build up layer by layer, growing gradually over time. A stromatolite may grow to a meter or more.
The Arch Mission Foundation is a non-profit organization whose goal is to create multiple redundant repositories of human knowledge around the Solar System, including on Earth. The repositories consist (in part) of physical optical disks, which will reportedly remain readable for up to 14 billion years, resist cosmic radiation, and can withstand temperatures up to 1,000°C.
During this episodes conversation, we discuss two examples of such repositories. The first was in the glove box of a Tesla Roadster car, which SpaceX launched into space in February 2018. And the second was onboard the Israeli Beresheet Lunar Mission, launched by SpaceX in February 2018.
The Beresheet spacecraft carried a “time capsule” containing over 30 million pages of data, including a full copy of the English-language Wikipedia, the Wearable Rosetta disc, the PanLex database, the Torah, children’s drawings, a children’s book inspired by the space launch, memoirs of a Holocaust survivor, Israel’s national anthem (“Hatikvah”), the Israeli flag, and a copy of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. At the last minute, genetic samples and tardigrades were added in epoxy resin between the digital layers.
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