Monthly Archives: June 2012

While I’m away….

I’m at the annual meetings of the American Society for Microbiology, stuffing my head full of the latest research on microbes and best practices for microbiology teaching.

It’s a small world

For my micro peeps out there, here’s a few fun facts from the meeting:

  • Giant viruses (called giruses) are so big you can see them with a light microscope and they have large genomes (for viruses) that may include genes for their own tRNAs and some metabolic enzymes. This breaks the traditional view that viruses borrow all protein synthesis and metabolic machinery from the host. These facts, as well as some evolutionary analysis, resparks the debate about whether we should consider viruses as “alive” and include them on the big tree of life.
  • The dirtiest places in hotel rooms (most likely to have coliform bacteria) are light switches and TV remotes. Hypothesis is maids don’t have time to clean the little things.
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa uses it’s green pigment as both an electron donor and acceptor, which helps it survive in the damaged lungs of CF patients (when oxygen levels get low and oxygen isn’t available as an electron acceptor). As a CF’s patients lungs get more and more damaged, the bacterium makes more and more pigment.
  • The Japanese were using pasteurization to control the types of microbes present in sake fermentation 300 years before Pasteur was born. Oh, and making sake is more like making beer than wine, and there’s several different varieties ranging from the sort of earthy toned stuff that best with food to a champagne style that tasted to me like alcoholic Sprite. (Yes, there was a tasting session following the sake talk. We have to have a little microbiology-related fun.)

Sake production is very much like making beer. The initial mash is made by inoculating the rice with koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae). The mold digests the starches to sugars. Then, yeast are added to ferment the sugars to alcohol.

  • Engineers who jumped over to biology started a field called synthetic biology that involves building new elements into living cells. This is different than genetic engineering where biologists take something that evolved in one cell and move it into another. These guys really think out of the box and build their own genes and regulators. One of the cool things they’ve built is a sort of genetic circuit that involves two genes, whose gene products each act as the repressor of the other. Depending on which inducer you add to the system, you can flip the genetic switch on or off. One cool thing they’re trying to do with this is engineer normal gut bacteria like Lactobacillus to detect pathogens like Vibrio cholerae. The idea is that you’d put the engineered bacteria into people’s guts (presumably in areas where cholera is a high risk). If the cholera bacterium entered the gut, one of its gene products would act as an inducer to the switch built into Lactobacillus, causing Lactobacillus to start transcribing and translating an antimicrobial to kill the V. cholerae. This is awesomely cool crazy stuff!

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Channeling My Inner Farm Girl

A couple of weeks ago, I put in a new raised bed for our vegetable garden.  For the frame, I “repurposed” the former bottom bunk of my son’s bunk bed (he’s moved up to the top and is using it as a loft).

Bunk bed on its side next to the grass I’m going to remove

Usually for big physical tasks like removing sod, I call for my husband to help me out. But, alas, Mr. Muscles was busy exercising the muscle between his ears and writing a paper (he took two classes this Spring and was crazy busy). So, I was forced to woman-up and do the job myself.

I used a shovel and cut the sod out chunk by chunk, then shook each clump of grass to get as much dirt off as I could before I tossed the grass into the wheelbarrow.

All the sod cut away, one clump at a time.

As I worked, I started wondering — how did I know how to do this? I realized I  must have learned it from  my Dad.

My Dad is in the middle surrounded by his female offspring and next to his mother

We had a vegetable garden every year, and I remember my Dad showing me how to shake off the grass clumps to save the soil. I feel like I don’t remember many details from my childhood, but I do remember the big tomatoes and cucumbers that Dad grew every year.

My little sisters, with Tamara holding a basket of Dad’s produce

My little sister and brother, showing off the produce from the garden

And I wondered about how my Dad knew what to do, and that led me to my grandparents. They also had a backyard garden, plus my Grandpa was an amazing rose gardener.

My grandparents on their porch, with some of my Grandpa’s roses showing below.

I lived with my grandparents for a few years when I was in junior high school. The walkway into the backyard was narrow and it ran next to a planting bed that my grandparents planted with flowers and herbs. As I walked to the back yard, I’d brush the parsley and smell the zinnias that were growing in the bed. To this day, whenever I chop parsley I’m transported back to those golden days in  a sunny California yard.

My Grandpa and my uncle, with the garden behind them.

I’ll have to ask my Dad and my uncle, but I assume that their parents taught them to garden. My grandparents grew up in Belleville, IL, which was home to many German farmers, and my Grandpa grew up on a farm. So I wondered, as I shook the soil out of the clumps of grass to make my new planting bed, how far back could I trace a line of farm people who had done the very same thing? And as I thought about that long line,  I realized that I want to continue it. And that means getting my boys away from their computers and out in the yard more so that they, too, know how to grow their own food.

My new planting bed, planted with tomatoes (surrounded with red plastic).

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Pigs are cute!

I’m starting a campaign to raise awareness of pig cuteness.

Micro piglet hugs strawberry.

Hint: You can go here to sign the petition to ask Tyson to stop using gestation crates.

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