The Bacteria that Live in Your Coffee Maker

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Wherever you live, bacteria live. Wherever you can’t live, bacteria live. From hydrothermal vents to acid mines, microbes have the planet covered. They also have your Nespresso machine covered. Recently, Spanish researchers decided to inventory the microbial community that dwells inside George Clooney’s favorite coffee maker. Continue reading

A Revolution in Basic Microbiology?

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Many bacteria are notoriously picky eaters. The microbe that causes leprosy, for instance, cannot be grown in a test tube. Instead, researchers must culture the microbe in armadillos or on the footpads of mice. Other bacteria without foot fetishes can still be difficult to culture, requiring a long and complex recipe of various nutrients, ions, and vitamins. As a result, it is simply impossible for microbiologists to grow some 99% of bacteria in the laboratory. Continue reading

The Primordial Soup Was Edible

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Back in 2005, when I was a first-year microbiology graduate student, I enrolled in a course on bacterial physiology. One of our guest lecturers, Dr. Franklin Harold, was an esteemed researcher in bioenergetics, a field that examines how cells derive and utilize energy. One evening, outside of class, I happened upon Dr. Harold at a seminar, and I asked him a question: “What is your opinion on origin of life research?”

He responded, “It has been an abject failure.” Continue reading

Protecting Coffee Crops: Beetles and Bugs

THE coffee-berry borer is a pesky beetle. It is thought to destroy $500m-worth of unpicked coffee beans a year, thus diminishing the incomes of some 20m farmers. The borer spends most of its life as a larva, buried inside a coffee berry, feeding on the beans within. To do so, it has to defy the toxic effects of caffeine. This is a substance which, though pleasing to people, is fatal to insects—except, for reasons hitherto unknown, to the coffee-berry borer. But those reasons are unknown no longer. Read the rest at The Economist.

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 the 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.

Continue reading

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

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

Will Propane-Making Bacteria Revolutionize Energy?

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Propane is the fossil fuel of red-blooded Americans. What poolside or tailgating experience would be complete without firing up the gas grill and torching some meat? (I know, I know… there are charcoal devotees out there.) Even metropolitan mass transit systems are getting in on the excitement. Fleets of buses that run on “LPG” (liquefied petroleum gas) are burning a mixture of propane and butane.

Currently, propane is extracted from natural gas or crude oil. But, in the long run, this is neither a sustainable nor an environmentally friendly practice. Burning propane extracted from the earth is also not carbon-neutral, though it is better than combusting oil or coal. Thus, researchers are looking for ways to produce renewable “fossil fuels” through the use of alternative technologies, such as synthetic biology. Last year, for instance, scientists engineered E. coli to churn out a biofuel that resembled gasoline. Continue reading

Evolution Needs to Be Seen to Be Believed

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

A substantial proportion of Americans reject evolution. This is perhaps partly due to evolution not being terribly intuitive. Life began over 3.5 billion years ago — a timespan that is simply incomprehensible to our puny minds. If a species evolves over the course of 100,000 years, that is considered “quick” by evolutionary standards. Yet, most of us cannot get a mental grip on 100K years, either. Continue reading