How Yellowstone Revolutionized Biotechnology

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Life is capable of thriving in the most inhospitable places. The photograph above, which I took on my recent trip to Yellowstone National Park, shows Morning Glory Pool, a hot spring that is a short hike from Old Faithful. It’s named after the purplish-blue morning glory flower, but theĀ pool no longer has that color, which was due to a particular type of thermophilic (heat-loving) microbe. That is because ignoramuses threw coins and other debris into the pool, blocking the vents and lowering its temperature, which allowed microbes of other colors to grow.

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Pathogen Jumped from Humans to Rabbits in 1976

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Zoonotic diseases, such as the plague and Ebola virus, jump from animals to humans. Often, but not always, such interspecies transmission occurs following mutations in the pathogen’s genome that make it more suitable for targeting a new host. But, infectious disease is not a one-way street. This same evolutionary process also makes possible “reverse zoonosis” (more properly dubbed zooanthroponosis) — i.e., the transmission of disease from humans to animals. Continue reading

Malaria May Be Driving Evolution of Blood Type

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Malaria is a deadly disease that, according to the World Health Organization, infects roughly 200 million people annually and kills more than half a million. It has thus become a powerful force of natural selection, helping shape the evolution of its human host. Continue reading

A Very Strange Lemon-Shaped Virus

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Viruses are among the weirdest things on the planet. Existing in a Limbo-like world somewhere between the living and the dead, viruses present undergraduate microbiologists with their very first philosophical conundrum: What is life? The question may be forever impossible to answer because even though viruses evolve — as do other bizarre creatures such as transposons and prions — they continue to defy our understanding of what it means to be “alive.” Continue reading

Solar Fuel: Converting Sunlight to Alcohol

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Solar power is billed as the energy of the future. However, today, solar power constitutes less than 1% of the global energy market. Though some cynics point their finger at a “Big Oil” conspiracy, the actual explanation for why solar power has remained such a disappointment is much more mundane. The reasons boil down to basic physics, economics, and impracticality. Continue reading

Mom Was Right: Catching Cold in the Cold

This article was originally published on RealClearScience.

If your parents or grandparents were like mine, you probably heard this as a child heading out to play in the snow: “Put your hat and scarf on. If you don’t, you’ll catch a cold.” Years later, all grown up with a microbiology doctorate hanging on my wall, I know that viruses cause colds, not chilly weather. Their admonitions, while well-intentioned, were based on nothing but folklore and superstition. Right? Continue reading

How the Plague Hijacked Fleas to Kill the World

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

The bacterium that causes bubonic plague or Black Death, Yersinia pestis, is a relatively new species. Research suggests it diverged from its nearest living bacterial ancestor no more than 6,400 years ago. During this transition, the genetics of Y. pestis changed. Most notably, it acquired genes that helped it survive inside fleas. Continue reading