Fuzzy mouth
You know how some mornings (or evenings) you can wake up with cotton mouth, a dry and deeply unpleasant sense that your oral cavity is wallpapered in fuzz? Well, the above critter isn’t the reason, but it’s certainly evocative and it does reside in your mouth.
This is a scanning electron micrograph of an oral bacterium, taken by Steve Gschmeissner, an award-winning and much-published English scientific photographer.
This particular microbial masterpiece is singular, but inside your mouth, it’s much more crowded, a veritable zoo of up to 700 bacterial strains, though most people are host to just 34 to 72 different varieties.
Most oral bacteria appear to be harmless, with no impact upon our health. Some are probiotic and actually aid in digesting food. Some protect our teeth and gums, usually by crowding out more harmful species.
Speaking of harmful, two bacterial strains to be avoided as much as possible are Streptococcus mutans and Porphyromonas gingivalis. The former feeds upon sugars and starches in the foods you eat, producing a enamel-eroding acids that are the main cause of tooth decay in humans. The latter are usually not present in a healthy mouth, but have been strongly linked to periodontitis, a serious and progressive disease that affects gum tissues and alveolar bone that support teeth.

Fuzzy mouth

You know how some mornings (or evenings) you can wake up with cotton mouth, a dry and deeply unpleasant sense that your oral cavity is wallpapered in fuzz? Well, the above critter isn’t the reason, but it’s certainly evocative and it does reside in your mouth.

This is a scanning electron micrograph of an oral bacterium, taken by Steve Gschmeissner, an award-winning and much-published English scientific photographer.

This particular microbial masterpiece is singular, but inside your mouth, it’s much more crowded, a veritable zoo of up to 700 bacterial strains, though most people are host to just 34 to 72 different varieties.

Most oral bacteria appear to be harmless, with no impact upon our health. Some are probiotic and actually aid in digesting food. Some protect our teeth and gums, usually by crowding out more harmful species.

Speaking of harmful, two bacterial strains to be avoided as much as possible are Streptococcus mutans and Porphyromonas gingivalis. The former feeds upon sugars and starches in the foods you eat, producing a enamel-eroding acids that are the main cause of tooth decay in humans. The latter are usually not present in a healthy mouth, but have been strongly linked to periodontitis, a serious and progressive disease that affects gum tissues and alveolar bone that support teeth.

Harden your heart
In 1981, the pop group Quarterflash sold one million copies of “Harden My Heart,” their most popular hit. In the same time period, roughly three-quarters of a million Americans have a heart attack (one every 34 seconds) and 600,000 Americans die from heart disease.
There are lots of ways to hurt the human heart. One is depicted above. In this Wellcome Images Award-winning scanning electron micrograph, Sergio Bertazzo shows the surface of a human heart valve covered by clumps of calcium salts (the spheres colored orange). The process is called calcification and over time, it can cause soft tissues to harden and prevent the valve from functioning properly, resulting in heart disease.
To quote Quarterflash: “Darling in my wildest dreams I never thought I’d go…”

Harden your heart

In 1981, the pop group Quarterflash sold one million copies of “Harden My Heart,” their most popular hit. In the same time period, roughly three-quarters of a million Americans have a heart attack (one every 34 seconds) and 600,000 Americans die from heart disease.

There are lots of ways to hurt the human heart. One is depicted above. In this Wellcome Images Award-winning scanning electron micrograph, Sergio Bertazzo shows the surface of a human heart valve covered by clumps of calcium salts (the spheres colored orange). The process is called calcification and over time, it can cause soft tissues to harden and prevent the valve from functioning properly, resulting in heart disease.

To quote Quarterflash: “Darling in my wildest dreams I never thought I’d go…”

Pretty painful
Kidney stones are formed when salts, minerals and chemicals in urine clump together and solidify. Usually because the urinary contents have become too concentrated, i.e. not enough water mixed in. If the stones are small enough, they typically are excreted without notice. Larger stones, however, can get stuck in the urinary tract and cause problems. Passing them is often quite painful; some require surgery for removal.
The scanning electron micrograph above depicts a stone roughly two millimeters in diameter, about the thickness of a nickel. It was taken by Kevin Mackenzie at the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Medical Sciences, who also produced and provided the subject matter. It’s among this year’s Wellcome Image Award winners.
It’s pretty.
For painful, there’s the tale of a Hungarian man who had a two-and-a-half pound stone surgically removed in 2009. It was reportedly the size of a coconut.
And then there’s 64-year-old Don Winfield, a Canadian who claims to have produced (and passed) more than 6,504 kidney stones since 1986.

Pretty painful

Kidney stones are formed when salts, minerals and chemicals in urine clump together and solidify. Usually because the urinary contents have become too concentrated, i.e. not enough water mixed in. If the stones are small enough, they typically are excreted without notice. Larger stones, however, can get stuck in the urinary tract and cause problems. Passing them is often quite painful; some require surgery for removal.

The scanning electron micrograph above depicts a stone roughly two millimeters in diameter, about the thickness of a nickel. It was taken by Kevin Mackenzie at the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Medical Sciences, who also produced and provided the subject matter. It’s among this year’s Wellcome Image Award winners.

It’s pretty.

For painful, there’s the tale of a Hungarian man who had a two-and-a-half pound stone surgically removed in 2009. It was reportedly the size of a coconut.

And then there’s 64-year-old Don Winfield, a Canadian who claims to have produced (and passed) more than 6,504 kidney stones since 1986.

Sperm-inal velocity
The little guys – or maybe not so little – are in the news these days.
Most recently, of course, is the discovery of a 16 million-year-old fossil of a female ostracod with “enormous fossilized sperm in her reproductive tract.” Size is relative since we’re talking about an extinct species of tiny shrimp. 
As long as we’re discussing old sperm, check out Emily Oster’s ruminations on whether actual science supports the popular notion that older men’s sperm really is worse than younger men’s. Her conclusion: Some studies suggest some concern, but the old guys are holding their own.
Finally, in a recent paper published in Cell Reports, researchers at Montana State University describe early efforts to make primitive sperm out of skin cells. It’s apparently much easier than you’d think, though the researchers say the resulting sperm aren’t actually functional.
By the way, here’s a tidbit for your next cocktail party: The average speed of human sperm is 8 inches per hour. Generally speaking, the lifespan of sperm is one to three days, though some plucky individuals might persist for up to five.
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Sperm-inal velocity

The little guys – or maybe not so little – are in the news these days.

Most recently, of course, is the discovery of a 16 million-year-old fossil of a female ostracod with “enormous fossilized sperm in her reproductive tract.” Size is relative since we’re talking about an extinct species of tiny shrimp. 

As long as we’re discussing old sperm, check out Emily Oster’s ruminations on whether actual science supports the popular notion that older men’s sperm really is worse than younger men’s. Her conclusion: Some studies suggest some concern, but the old guys are holding their own.

Finally, in a recent paper published in Cell Reports, researchers at Montana State University describe early efforts to make primitive sperm out of skin cells. It’s apparently much easier than you’d think, though the researchers say the resulting sperm aren’t actually functional.

By the way, here’s a tidbit for your next cocktail party: The average speed of human sperm is 8 inches per hour. Generally speaking, the lifespan of sperm is one to three days, though some plucky individuals might persist for up to five.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images.

The worm has turned
Schistosomes belong to the class Trematoda. They are parasitic flatworms with complex life cycles that involve infecting at least two hosts. The primary host, where the flatworms or flukes sexually reproduce, are vertebrates, including humans. The intermediate host, which is employed to disperse the parasite, is usually a snail.
In the image above by Bo Wang and Phillip A. Newmark of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (which won a 2013 BioArt award from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology), developing Schistosoma mansoni larvae (center) are shown developing inside the muscular, fibrous tentacle of a snail host.
Eventually these larvae are released into water. If the contaminated water comes into contact with human skin, the larvae penetrate and ultimately develop into adult worms residing in veins of the urinary tract and intestines, causing a condition known as schistosomiasis, which affects almost 240 million people worldwide.
The infection is prevalent in tropical and sub-tropical regions, in poor communities without potable water and adequate sanitation. There are many potential complications of schistosomiasis, including gastrointestinal bleeding, renal failure, infertility, pulmonary hypertension and sepsis. Typical treatment involves the drug Praziquantel, an anthelmintic that causes the flukes to be expelled from the body. The disease can become chronic, and in some regions, acute schistosomiasis is associated with a mortality rate of up to 25 percent.

The worm has turned

Schistosomes belong to the class Trematoda. They are parasitic flatworms with complex life cycles that involve infecting at least two hosts. The primary host, where the flatworms or flukes sexually reproduce, are vertebrates, including humans. The intermediate host, which is employed to disperse the parasite, is usually a snail.

In the image above by Bo Wang and Phillip A. Newmark of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (which won a 2013 BioArt award from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology), developing Schistosoma mansoni larvae (center) are shown developing inside the muscular, fibrous tentacle of a snail host.

Eventually these larvae are released into water. If the contaminated water comes into contact with human skin, the larvae penetrate and ultimately develop into adult worms residing in veins of the urinary tract and intestines, causing a condition known as schistosomiasis, which affects almost 240 million people worldwide.

The infection is prevalent in tropical and sub-tropical regions, in poor communities without potable water and adequate sanitation. There are many potential complications of schistosomiasis, including gastrointestinal bleeding, renal failure, infertility, pulmonary hypertension and sepsis. Typical treatment involves the drug Praziquantel, an anthelmintic that causes the flukes to be expelled from the body. The disease can become chronic, and in some regions, acute schistosomiasis is associated with a mortality rate of up to 25 percent.

With luck, no pox redux
The world has held its collective breath since October 26, 1977 when the last naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed, according to the World Health Organization.
The infectious disease has a long human history, much of it horrifying. It’s believed to have first emerged in humans roughly 12,000 years ago and has killed by the millions. It’s estimated that smallpox alone (there are two types: Variola major and Variola minor) is responsible for the deaths of 300-500 million people worldwide in the 20th century.
Robust and extensive vaccination programs in the 19th and 20th centuries eventually led to the virus’ official eradication in 1979. It’s one of just two infectious diseases to be eliminated by modern medicine. The other is rinderpest, a viral disease of cattle and other even-toed ungulates that was officially declared eradicated in 2011.
Given its deadly virulence – and its horrifying use as an occasional biological weapon – smallpox is broadly viewed as an extreme threat to human health, one to be avoided at all cost. The only known remaining stocks of smallpox virus exist in secret labs in the United States and Russia. They are controversial, to say the least, with many health experts urging the stocks’ destruction though some scientists counter that the virus should be preserved for study and potential use in the development of other vaccines and medicines. The debate is heated and ongoing.
But even as authorities fret about smallpox, nature has a way of introducing new concerns. Recently, two herdsmen in the country of Georgia were found to be infected with a previously unknown cousin of the variola virus, the cause of smallpox. Like variola, the new virus (which doesn’t yet have name) produces the multitudinous, painful blisters, a fever, swollen lymph nodes and weakness. Both men, fortunately, have recovered, but health officials worry that the emergence of this new virus may be evidence that smallpox like viruses – known as orthopoxviruses – are making a comeback as worldwide efforts to vaccinate against them have flagged and waned.

With luck, no pox redux

The world has held its collective breath since October 26, 1977 when the last naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed, according to the World Health Organization.

The infectious disease has a long human history, much of it horrifying. It’s believed to have first emerged in humans roughly 12,000 years ago and has killed by the millions. It’s estimated that smallpox alone (there are two types: Variola major and Variola minor) is responsible for the deaths of 300-500 million people worldwide in the 20th century.

Robust and extensive vaccination programs in the 19th and 20th centuries eventually led to the virus’ official eradication in 1979. It’s one of just two infectious diseases to be eliminated by modern medicine. The other is rinderpest, a viral disease of cattle and other even-toed ungulates that was officially declared eradicated in 2011.

Given its deadly virulence – and its horrifying use as an occasional biological weapon – smallpox is broadly viewed as an extreme threat to human health, one to be avoided at all cost. The only known remaining stocks of smallpox virus exist in secret labs in the United States and Russia. They are controversial, to say the least, with many health experts urging the stocks’ destruction though some scientists counter that the virus should be preserved for study and potential use in the development of other vaccines and medicines. The debate is heated and ongoing.

But even as authorities fret about smallpox, nature has a way of introducing new concerns. Recently, two herdsmen in the country of Georgia were found to be infected with a previously unknown cousin of the variola virus, the cause of smallpox. Like variola, the new virus (which doesn’t yet have name) produces the multitudinous, painful blisters, a fever, swollen lymph nodes and weakness. Both men, fortunately, have recovered, but health officials worry that the emergence of this new virus may be evidence that smallpox like viruses – known as orthopoxviruses – are making a comeback as worldwide efforts to vaccinate against them have flagged and waned.

Y you can stop worrying
For quite some time, researchers, media and possibly some misandrists have pondered the shrinking Y chromosome and the fate of men.
The Y chromosome, of course, is the chromosome that carries the directions for forming testes and making sperm, traits that sort of fundamentally define the male of the species and ensure continued reproduction.
But the Y chromosome has been getting smaller over the last several hundred million years as it has mysteriously shed genes. It now boasts just 19 compared to the roughly 600 genes it once boasted alongside the now-much-larger X chromosome. In a 2004 series, Joe Palca at NPR wondered if the incredibly shrinking Y was a harbinger for the eventual end of men.
Palca was not alone.
Relax, fellows. According to new research published in Nature, the dispiriting diminution of Y has ceased. Sure, it’s the undisputed runt of the chromosome family but it hasn’t gotten any runty-er for the past 25 million years, which is something.
The reason may be that the Y has nothing left to lose. Or at least nothing to lose that wouldn’t result in catastrophic consequences for all humanity. All of the remaining Y genes, biologist David Page told Scientific American, are crucial to human survival. They do important, basic jobs like directing the construction of proteins or how to splice RNA together. “These are powerful players in the central command room of cells,” Page said.
So heave a sigh for the Y, guys. Small but mighty is a whole lot better than being an ex-chromosome.

Y you can stop worrying

For quite some time, researchers, media and possibly some misandrists have pondered the shrinking Y chromosome and the fate of men.

The Y chromosome, of course, is the chromosome that carries the directions for forming testes and making sperm, traits that sort of fundamentally define the male of the species and ensure continued reproduction.

But the Y chromosome has been getting smaller over the last several hundred million years as it has mysteriously shed genes. It now boasts just 19 compared to the roughly 600 genes it once boasted alongside the now-much-larger X chromosome. In a 2004 series, Joe Palca at NPR wondered if the incredibly shrinking Y was a harbinger for the eventual end of men.

Palca was not alone.

Relax, fellows. According to new research published in Nature, the dispiriting diminution of Y has ceased. Sure, it’s the undisputed runt of the chromosome family but it hasn’t gotten any runty-er for the past 25 million years, which is something.

The reason may be that the Y has nothing left to lose. Or at least nothing to lose that wouldn’t result in catastrophic consequences for all humanity. All of the remaining Y genes, biologist David Page told Scientific American, are crucial to human survival. They do important, basic jobs like directing the construction of proteins or how to splice RNA together. “These are powerful players in the central command room of cells,” Page said.

So heave a sigh for the Y, guys. Small but mighty is a whole lot better than being an ex-chromosome.

The awe of similars
Cilia are typically tiny, even microscopic, protruberances. They are hairlike – derived in fact from the Latin word for eyelash – but far more complicated, found abundantly throughout nature doing many kinds of jobs.
There are two types: motile and non-motile. The former are employed as a form of locomotion, with groups of cilia undulating in coordinated waves as a method of transportation. Non-motile or primary cilia behave as sensory organelles. Humans feature both types.
Motile cilia, for example, are found in the lining of the trachea, where they sweep mucus and dirt out of the lungs and in the Fallopian tubes, where their rhythmic beating moves the egg from the ovum to the uterus.
Virtually every cell in the human body sports at least one primary cilium, used by the cell to take measure of its surroundings. For some cilia, such as those in the ear or lining the nasal cavity, this job is particularly notable. They are essential elements of our sensory processes.
The images above: Top left, a false-colored scanning electron micrograph of cilia in a human Fallopian tube, courtesy of Steven Gschmeissner; top right, nasal cilia, courtesy of Susumu Nishinaga; lower left, an immature hair bundle of cells in the cochlea of the human ear, courtesy of David Furness, Wellcome Images; and lower right, cilia lining the trachea, courtesy again of Gschmeissner.

The awe of similars

Cilia are typically tiny, even microscopic, protruberances. They are hairlike – derived in fact from the Latin word for eyelash – but far more complicated, found abundantly throughout nature doing many kinds of jobs.

There are two types: motile and non-motile. The former are employed as a form of locomotion, with groups of cilia undulating in coordinated waves as a method of transportation. Non-motile or primary cilia behave as sensory organelles. Humans feature both types.

Motile cilia, for example, are found in the lining of the trachea, where they sweep mucus and dirt out of the lungs and in the Fallopian tubes, where their rhythmic beating moves the egg from the ovum to the uterus.

Virtually every cell in the human body sports at least one primary cilium, used by the cell to take measure of its surroundings. For some cilia, such as those in the ear or lining the nasal cavity, this job is particularly notable. They are essential elements of our sensory processes.

The images above: Top left, a false-colored scanning electron micrograph of cilia in a human Fallopian tube, courtesy of Steven Gschmeissner; top right, nasal cilia, courtesy of Susumu Nishinaga; lower left, an immature hair bundle of cells in the cochlea of the human ear, courtesy of David Furness, Wellcome Images; and lower right, cilia lining the trachea, courtesy again of Gschmeissner.

Intestinal mortitude
For Entamoeba histolytica, that’s dinner up above, otherwise known as the human intestine. Cousin to the brain-munching Naegleria fowleri, E. histolytica resides in your gut, where it can cause a long-lasting and severe case of “food poisoning.” Millions of cases of dysentery and colitis are attributed each year to this common single-celled animal.
Recently, scientists figured out how exactly the pathogen wreaks havoc and, well, it’s gross: It bites off little bits of intestine, chews them up and spits them out. The process is called trogocytosis, derived in part from the Greek word trogo, which means “to nibble.”
E. histolytica’s lifestyle is a bit confusing. Other gut-churning pathogens, like Escherichia coli, do their worst by secreting toxins. N. fowleri triggers a harmful inflammatory response, one that can result in deadly encephalitis. E. histolytica’s approach seems a bit over-dramatic, but some researchers suggest chewing out chunks of the intestinal wall might be useful in creating more room to grow and reproduce.
Pictured: A biopsy of the human small intestine as seen through a confocal laser scanning microscope. Intestinal epithelium has been stained blue, with cell nuclei in red.

Intestinal mortitude

For Entamoeba histolytica, that’s dinner up above, otherwise known as the human intestine. Cousin to the brain-munching Naegleria fowleri, E. histolytica resides in your gut, where it can cause a long-lasting and severe case of “food poisoning.” Millions of cases of dysentery and colitis are attributed each year to this common single-celled animal.

Recently, scientists figured out how exactly the pathogen wreaks havoc and, well, it’s gross: It bites off little bits of intestine, chews them up and spits them out. The process is called trogocytosis, derived in part from the Greek word trogo, which means “to nibble.”

E. histolytica’s lifestyle is a bit confusing. Other gut-churning pathogens, like Escherichia coli, do their worst by secreting toxins. N. fowleri triggers a harmful inflammatory response, one that can result in deadly encephalitis. E. histolytica’s approach seems a bit over-dramatic, but some researchers suggest chewing out chunks of the intestinal wall might be useful in creating more room to grow and reproduce.

Pictured: A biopsy of the human small intestine as seen through a confocal laser scanning microscope. Intestinal epithelium has been stained blue, with cell nuclei in red.

Drool fuel
Is that just about the most adorable, little power plant you’ve ever seen?
OK, he’s just a baby now, but if researchers at Penn State are ultimately successful, someday we might all be able to tap into a new – and in the case of babies, seemingly inexhaustible – supply of energy from saliva.
Penn State engineers recently reported creating a tiny microbial fuel cell capable of producing enough power from human spit to run on-chip applications. The fuel cell creates energy when bacteria break down organic matter in saliva, generating a charge that is transferred to the anode.The microbial fuel cell produced almost 1 microwatt (one millionth of a watt) of power. That’s not a lot by most measures – the human brain’s daily electrical output is 20 watts, enough to illuminate a small refrigerator – but it could be sufficient for future applications, like a proposed ovulation predictor based on the electrical conductivity of a woman’s saliva, which changes five days before ovulation. The predictor would send a signal to a nearby cell phone, alerting the woman.

Drool fuel

Is that just about the most adorable, little power plant you’ve ever seen?

OK, he’s just a baby now, but if researchers at Penn State are ultimately successful, someday we might all be able to tap into a new – and in the case of babies, seemingly inexhaustible – supply of energy from saliva.

Penn State engineers recently reported creating a tiny microbial fuel cell capable of producing enough power from human spit to run on-chip applications. The fuel cell creates energy when bacteria break down organic matter in saliva, generating a charge that is transferred to the anode.

The microbial fuel cell produced almost 1 microwatt (one millionth of a watt) of power. That’s not a lot by most measures – the human brain’s daily electrical output is 20 watts, enough to illuminate a small refrigerator – but it could be sufficient for future applications, like a proposed ovulation predictor based on the electrical conductivity of a woman’s saliva, which changes five days before ovulation. The predictor would send a signal to a nearby cell phone, alerting the woman.

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