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.

Yeast of our problems
Scientists at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Institute for Systems Genetics reported last week that  they had synthesized one of the 16 chromosomes in Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
“We have a yeast that looks, smells and behaves like a regular yeast, but this yeast is endowed with properties normal yeast don’t have,” lead study scientist Jef Boeke told The Los Angeles Times.
The larger goal, however, is to create a yeast cell that contains an entirely human-designed genome that could be manipulated to do new and better things in the service of mankind.
S. cerevisiae is already something of an industrial workhorse. It’s widely used in baking, brewing, winemaking and the manufacture of everything from vaccines to biofuels. And it’s a reliable scientific model, long employed by researchers to parse the mysteries of genetics.
Above, a colored X-ray micrograph by Carolyn Larabell of UC San Francisco and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shows a fast-frozen yeast cell in the process of dividing into two copies, called budding. 

Yeast of our problems

Scientists at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Institute for Systems Genetics reported last week that  they had synthesized one of the 16 chromosomes in Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

“We have a yeast that looks, smells and behaves like a regular yeast, but this yeast is endowed with properties normal yeast don’t have,” lead study scientist Jef Boeke told The Los Angeles Times.

The larger goal, however, is to create a yeast cell that contains an entirely human-designed genome that could be manipulated to do new and better things in the service of mankind.

S. cerevisiae is already something of an industrial workhorse. It’s widely used in baking, brewing, winemaking and the manufacture of everything from vaccines to biofuels. And it’s a reliable scientific model, long employed by researchers to parse the mysteries of genetics.

Above, a colored X-ray micrograph by Carolyn Larabell of UC San Francisco and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shows a fast-frozen yeast cell in the process of dividing into two copies, called budding

Tight as a tick
A tick burrows into dinner, which in this case happens to be the leg of Ashley Prytherch, a medical photographer based at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford, England. This image brought Prytherch a 2014 Wellcome Image award but, fortunately, nothing more.
Ticks are notorious disease carriers. They feed on the blood of other animals and if one of those animals is infected, the tick may transmit that infection to the next animal it takes a meal from.
Among the transmissible diseases to humans: babesiosis, ehrilichosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and, of course, Lyme disease, which some experts say is much more prevalent than some statistics suggest.
Tick bites have also been linked to severe red meat allergies and a newly discovered viral disease.

Tight as a tick

A tick burrows into dinner, which in this case happens to be the leg of Ashley Prytherch, a medical photographer based at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford, England. This image brought Prytherch a 2014 Wellcome Image award but, fortunately, nothing more.

Ticks are notorious disease carriers. They feed on the blood of other animals and if one of those animals is infected, the tick may transmit that infection to the next animal it takes a meal from.

Among the transmissible diseases to humans: babesiosis, ehrilichosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and, of course, Lyme disease, which some experts say is much more prevalent than some statistics suggest.

Tick bites have also been linked to severe red meat allergies and a newly discovered viral disease.

There goes the neighborhood
The human body contains 10 times more microbial cells than human cells, though the total combined weight of the latter is estimated to range from a mere 7 ounces and three pounds. (No blaming those extra pounds on unwanted bacteria.)
In fact, most of the microbes that make up you are very much wanted. They do good work or at least take up space and prevent nasty bugs from doing bad work. The vast majority of these beneficial microbes reside in your gut. Think intestinal tract homes.
They make your gut a busy and crowded place – and a good place as long as all of the neighbors get along. Throw in a few bad residents, however, and things can become quite unsettled, perhaps even diseased.
A new paper in the journal Cell, Host and Microbe by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and elsewhere makes that point. The scientists looked at the numbers and varieties of microbes living in the digestive tracts of healthy people and in people with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition that afflicts more than 1 million Americans.
They found that the intestines of Crohn’s patients had fewer microbial numbers and less diversity. Of the various bacteria in residence, a greater proportion of species were associated with increased inflammation.
The findings could eventually prompt doctors to rethink how Crohn’s disease is treated. Some patients are prescribed antibiotics which, it may turn out, are killing as many or more good intestinal bacteria as bad, knocking the neighborhood’s microbial mix out of whack.
Photo: Scanning electron micrograph of intestinal bacteria, false colored. Image courtesy of Martin Oggerli

There goes the neighborhood

The human body contains 10 times more microbial cells than human cells, though the total combined weight of the latter is estimated to range from a mere 7 ounces and three pounds. (No blaming those extra pounds on unwanted bacteria.)

In fact, most of the microbes that make up you are very much wanted. They do good work or at least take up space and prevent nasty bugs from doing bad work. The vast majority of these beneficial microbes reside in your gut. Think intestinal tract homes.

They make your gut a busy and crowded place – and a good place as long as all of the neighbors get along. Throw in a few bad residents, however, and things can become quite unsettled, perhaps even diseased.

A new paper in the journal Cell, Host and Microbe by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and elsewhere makes that point. The scientists looked at the numbers and varieties of microbes living in the digestive tracts of healthy people and in people with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition that afflicts more than 1 million Americans.

They found that the intestines of Crohn’s patients had fewer microbial numbers and less diversity. Of the various bacteria in residence, a greater proportion of species were associated with increased inflammation.

The findings could eventually prompt doctors to rethink how Crohn’s disease is treated. Some patients are prescribed antibiotics which, it may turn out, are killing as many or more good intestinal bacteria as bad, knocking the neighborhood’s microbial mix out of whack.

Photo: Scanning electron micrograph of intestinal bacteria, false colored. Image courtesy of Martin Oggerli

Thread lightly
Fractures and broken bones are no fun and the worst are those that require surgical screws. Sure, it’s a chance for some twisted braggadocio – “I’ve got precision-machined, surgical-grade titanium inside me!” – but these injuries are almost always very serious, painful and long-to- heal. The screws may be essential to holding things together in the right places during the healing process, but they present particular problems of their own.
To wit: They eventually must be removed, requiring more surgery and leaving behind a hole in bone that also must heal.
Much better would be a surgical screw strong enough to do its job and then go away. In a recent Nature Communications paper, scientists described just such a candidate. The screws are made of silk fibers. In experiments with rats, the screws successfully pinned bones together for eight weeks but behaved more like bone than metal. They are less stiff (reducing stress problems with surrounding bone), less sensitive to temperature changes, produce minimal inflammatory response and promote bone healing as they biodegrade.
The silk screws aren’t the first on the market. There are already screws made from polylactic acid, which is derived from corn starch, tapioca root and sugarcane. In 2010, a German company debuted a biodegradable screw made of polylactic acid and hydroxylapatite, a naturally occurring mineral that is also a primary component of natural bone and used in prosthetic devices. These screws are hollow to further encourage bone growth into them and reportedly completely disappear in two years.
And there is fracture putty, which in some cases could theoretically do away with screws altogether. It’s an experimental compound being developed by DARPA that is packed in and around compound bone fractures, where it quickly hardens to provide loadbearing capabilities while the bone heals. The putty is resorbed as the bone regenerates and grows into it.

Thread lightly

Fractures and broken bones are no fun and the worst are those that require surgical screws. Sure, it’s a chance for some twisted braggadocio – “I’ve got precision-machined, surgical-grade titanium inside me!” – but these injuries are almost always very serious, painful and long-to- heal. The screws may be essential to holding things together in the right places during the healing process, but they present particular problems of their own.

To wit: They eventually must be removed, requiring more surgery and leaving behind a hole in bone that also must heal.

Much better would be a surgical screw strong enough to do its job and then go away. In a recent Nature Communications paper, scientists described just such a candidate. The screws are made of silk fibers. In experiments with rats, the screws successfully pinned bones together for eight weeks but behaved more like bone than metal. They are less stiff (reducing stress problems with surrounding bone), less sensitive to temperature changes, produce minimal inflammatory response and promote bone healing as they biodegrade.

The silk screws aren’t the first on the market. There are already screws made from polylactic acid, which is derived from corn starch, tapioca root and sugarcane. In 2010, a German company debuted a biodegradable screw made of polylactic acid and hydroxylapatite, a naturally occurring mineral that is also a primary component of natural bone and used in prosthetic devices. These screws are hollow to further encourage bone growth into them and reportedly completely disappear in two years.

And there is fracture putty, which in some cases could theoretically do away with screws altogether. It’s an experimental compound being developed by DARPA that is packed in and around compound bone fractures, where it quickly hardens to provide loadbearing capabilities while the bone heals. The putty is resorbed as the bone regenerates and grows into it.

Open wide, as in “ooooooh!”
Scientists have discovered the DNA of millions of microbes trapped in the calcified plaque of four medieval skeletons, which may give clues to what our ancestors ate and the diseases they fought, according to news reports.
Plaque is a biofilm, usually pale yellow that naturally accumulates on teeth. It’s created by multitudinous oral bacteria attempting to attach themselves to the smooth surfaces of your teeth. When you don’t brush well or regularly visit your dentist, it builds up. It’s the stuff scraped away by dental hygienists using whirring grinders and tiny, terrifying stainless steel tools.
In the days of yore, dental hygiene was far less rigorous, of course. Plaque built up on folk’s teeth, layer upon hardening layer, until it completely covered them and was often thicker than the tooth itself.
So brush often and well – and don’t forget to thoroughly rinse off your toothbrush when you’re done. The image above is a single toothbrush bristle covered with microscopic mouth detritus.       

Open wide, as in “ooooooh!”

Scientists have discovered the DNA of millions of microbes trapped in the calcified plaque of four medieval skeletons, which may give clues to what our ancestors ate and the diseases they fought, according to news reports.

Plaque is a biofilm, usually pale yellow that naturally accumulates on teeth. It’s created by multitudinous oral bacteria attempting to attach themselves to the smooth surfaces of your teeth. When you don’t brush well or regularly visit your dentist, it builds up. It’s the stuff scraped away by dental hygienists using whirring grinders and tiny, terrifying stainless steel tools.

In the days of yore, dental hygiene was far less rigorous, of course. Plaque built up on folk’s teeth, layer upon hardening layer, until it completely covered them and was often thicker than the tooth itself.

So brush often and well – and don’t forget to thoroughly rinse off your toothbrush when you’re done. The image above is a single toothbrush bristle covered with microscopic mouth detritus.       

The awe of similars
Samuel Hahnemann’s “law of similars" is one of the foundations of homeopathy and the notion that “like cures like.” That is, a substance that produces certain symptoms in a healthy person should be able to relieve those same symptoms in an unwell person.
For example, a person drinking a cup of strong coffee for the first time is likely to experience some or all of the effects of caffeine: racing thoughts, palpitations, increased urine production, shaky hands, excitability and restlessness (which is admittedly why many coffee drinkers consume the stuff in the first place).
According to Hahnemann’s law of similars, coffee should do just the opposite in a sick person already experiencing these symptoms. For example, a homeopath (someone who practices homeopathy) would treat a hyperactive child or an insomniac with a preparation of “coffee cruda,” or unroasted coffee beans. According to homeopathic hypothesis, the caffeine in the cruda would calm the kid and help the insomniac sleep.
Such notions are widely disputed, to say the least. There is very little empirical evidence, broadly accepted, that homeopathic remedies are effective treatments for any specific condition. Indeed, some homeopathic notions, such as medicinal concoctions in which the “active ingredient” has been diluted to the point of no longer actually existing in the concoction, fly in the face of scientific logic and reason.
But this blog post isn’t about celebrating the law of similars but rather the awe of the same. Many, many objects and phenomena in nature appear remarkably alike in appearance, but are, in fact, completely different or unrelated in function or purpose.
Take the two images above: The one on the left is a scanning electron micrograph of different human circulatory system cells: dimpled red blood cells, bumpy white blood cells, called lymphocytes, and disk-shaped platelets. The image on the right is a scanning electron micrograph of diverse pollen grains magnified many times.

The awe of similars

Samuel Hahnemann’s “law of similars" is one of the foundations of homeopathy and the notion that “like cures like.” That is, a substance that produces certain symptoms in a healthy person should be able to relieve those same symptoms in an unwell person.

For example, a person drinking a cup of strong coffee for the first time is likely to experience some or all of the effects of caffeine: racing thoughts, palpitations, increased urine production, shaky hands, excitability and restlessness (which is admittedly why many coffee drinkers consume the stuff in the first place).

According to Hahnemann’s law of similars, coffee should do just the opposite in a sick person already experiencing these symptoms. For example, a homeopath (someone who practices homeopathy) would treat a hyperactive child or an insomniac with a preparation of “coffee cruda,” or unroasted coffee beans. According to homeopathic hypothesis, the caffeine in the cruda would calm the kid and help the insomniac sleep.

Such notions are widely disputed, to say the least. There is very little empirical evidence, broadly accepted, that homeopathic remedies are effective treatments for any specific condition. Indeed, some homeopathic notions, such as medicinal concoctions in which the “active ingredient” has been diluted to the point of no longer actually existing in the concoction, fly in the face of scientific logic and reason.

But this blog post isn’t about celebrating the law of similars but rather the awe of the same. Many, many objects and phenomena in nature appear remarkably alike in appearance, but are, in fact, completely different or unrelated in function or purpose.

Take the two images above: The one on the left is a scanning electron micrograph of different human circulatory system cells: dimpled red blood cells, bumpy white blood cells, called lymphocytes, and disk-shaped platelets. The image on the right is a scanning electron micrograph of diverse pollen grains magnified many times.

A hairy death
Apoptosis or programmed cell death is an essential part of life. For example, it’s critical to human development. Where would we be if every fetal cell survived? Some cells must die to form, say, our fingers and toes; others must perish to shape our functional brains.
Cells frequently commit suicide for the good of the whole. They may become apoptotic in response to viruses or gene mutations in order to prevent further damage. Menstruation relies upon programmed cell death.
Apoptosis may be necessary, but it’s not necessarily pretty. Above is a scanning electron micrograph of several cultured HeLa cancer cells. The cell at the center is undergoing apoptosis. During the process, the cell’s cytoskeleton breaks up, causing the outer membrane to bulge and decouple. The resulting wart-like structures are called blebs, which eventually break off and are consumed by phagocytic cells for recycling.
The hairy extensions are filopodia, extremely tiny extensions of cytoplasm used by cells for sensing, migration and cell-cell interactions.

A hairy death

Apoptosis or programmed cell death is an essential part of life. For example, it’s critical to human development. Where would we be if every fetal cell survived? Some cells must die to form, say, our fingers and toes; others must perish to shape our functional brains.

Cells frequently commit suicide for the good of the whole. They may become apoptotic in response to viruses or gene mutations in order to prevent further damage. Menstruation relies upon programmed cell death.

Apoptosis may be necessary, but it’s not necessarily pretty. Above is a scanning electron micrograph of several cultured HeLa cancer cells. The cell at the center is undergoing apoptosis. During the process, the cell’s cytoskeleton breaks up, causing the outer membrane to bulge and decouple. The resulting wart-like structures are called blebs, which eventually break off and are consumed by phagocytic cells for recycling.

The hairy extensions are filopodia, extremely tiny extensions of cytoplasm used by cells for sensing, migration and cell-cell interactions.

This is your brain, boiled
Well, not yours obviously, but someone’s.
In its alive and healthy state, the human brain is roughly three pounds of tissue with the reported consistency of oatmeal, though more fun-loving folks might prefer the Jell-O analogy. Men have slightly larger brains than women, but no one suggests that’s any correlation to actual intelligence.
In composition, a whole human brain is almost 80 percent water, with the remainder made up of lipids, proteins, carbohydrates, soluble organic substances and inorganic salts.
So the natural presumption might be that, say, boiling a brain would render it, well, non-existent. Wouldn’t it just dissolve? Not necessarily.
The image above depicts one of four brains found in human skeletons unearthed from a 4,000-year-old Bronze Age burial mound near the city of Kutahya in western Turkey. The bodies had been burned and buried (possibly victims of a long-ago earthquake and fire), but circumstances and chemistry strangely preserved the brains.
The New Scientist explained:
“The flames would have consumed any oxygen in the rubble and boiled the brains in their own fluids. The resulting lack of moisture and oxygen in the environment helped prevent tissue breakdown.”
Soil chemistry also helped. Potassium, magnesium and aluminum in the dirt reacted with fatty acids in brain tissue to help maintain the brains’ original shapes.
You can dig further into the story here.

This is your brain, boiled

Well, not yours obviously, but someone’s.

In its alive and healthy state, the human brain is roughly three pounds of tissue with the reported consistency of oatmeal, though more fun-loving folks might prefer the Jell-O analogy. Men have slightly larger brains than women, but no one suggests that’s any correlation to actual intelligence.

In composition, a whole human brain is almost 80 percent water, with the remainder made up of lipids, proteins, carbohydrates, soluble organic substances and inorganic salts.

So the natural presumption might be that, say, boiling a brain would render it, well, non-existent. Wouldn’t it just dissolve? Not necessarily.

The image above depicts one of four brains found in human skeletons unearthed from a 4,000-year-old Bronze Age burial mound near the city of Kutahya in western Turkey. The bodies had been burned and buried (possibly victims of a long-ago earthquake and fire), but circumstances and chemistry strangely preserved the brains.

The New Scientist explained:

“The flames would have consumed any oxygen in the rubble and boiled the brains in their own fluids. The resulting lack of moisture and oxygen in the environment helped prevent tissue breakdown.”

Soil chemistry also helped. Potassium, magnesium and aluminum in the dirt reacted with fatty acids in brain tissue to help maintain the brains’ original shapes.

You can dig further into the story here.

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