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May 8, 2012

Posted by srstone in Biology, Evolution, Genetics, Health, Medicine, Science Education.
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Viruses: Friend or Foe?

What is invisible to the naked eye, can affect the Earth’s climate, has a tiny shell, and can causes cancer?  Viruses are considered non-living, but play a major role in our bodies and environment.  In fact, viruses kill half of the bacteria in the ocean every day.  To get an idea of how much bacteria that is, a teaspoon of water contains approximately a billion bacteria.  Recent estimates show there are 1031 viruses on this earth.  That reads, 10 billion trillion, trillion.  Although viruses are smaller than what the unaided eye is capable of viewing, if all viruses were stacked end to end, they would be lined up for about 100 million light years.

How Viruses Work

 

Viruses are constantly on the attack from the outside of our body desperately trying to get in, but 4 trillion viruses also reside inside our body.  While some viruses are trying to find a host cell and cause harm, many viruses are necessary for a healthy life.  Some of the viruses inside of us can protect us from detrimental bacteria, but can also help balance the population of bacteria vital to our health.  A similar phenomenon occurs in the ocean.  Without viruses consuming half of the bacteria day in and day out, the levels of bacteria in the ecosystem could hamper the living of certain species.  Also, bacteria contain carbon and lots of nutrients.  With the viruses consuming the bacteria, there is a constant recycling throughout the ocean.  There is a hypothesis that because of all the carbon that’s coming out, it could be affecting the Earth’s climate.  Any of the carbon that is sent back to the atmosphere is going to trap heat (greenhouse effect).  It may be an extreme thought, but these tiny, non-living viruses are partially responsible for the weather.

Bacteriophages: the lifeless killers

Viruses that attack and dispose of bacteria are known as bacteriophagesFelix d’Herelle discovered the extraordinary conclusion that viruses can kill bacteria through treating a dish of bacteria with fluid from patients with dysentery!  He actually began a business selling viruses that could cure bacterial infections.  Hypothetically, there are viruses that exist in nature that can kill the most severe bacterial infections, but it’s a matter of discovering the right viruses.  Each species of bacteria has a series of bacteriophages that can eliminate it.

Antibiotics and Viruses: An evolutionary arms race

Before antibiotics were discovered in the 1930s, a method called phage therapywas used to combat infections.  However, once these antibiotic “magic pills” were discovered, phage therapy stood in the distance.  The chemicals were reliable and scientists knew how to make them.  However, with the current widening spread of antibiotic resistance caused by bacteria developing resistance to modern medicine’s most well-used antibiotics, it’s beginning to look like phage therapy wouldn’t be a terrible idea.  One main argument phage therapy new found interest: antibiotics can’t evolve, while viruses can.  Scientists have reached the point where viruses can be engineered and genes can be strategically placed to enhance their effectiveness.  This genetic and evolutionary tinkering could allow scientists to develop viruses to strategically kill various bacteria that might be antibiotic resistant.

Genetic Engineering of Viruses

 

Viruses: Directors of Their Own Fate?

In the wake of the recent deadly avian flu virus, critics have questioned whether the spreading from mammal to mammal could have occurred on its own.  A study completed at MSU by Justin Meyer was started with the thought that it would be a wild goose chase.  Meyer wondered if lambda phages could evolve another way a new way to enter its host.

lambda was used to infect the gut bacterium E. coli.  It is harmless to humans.  The most common means for lambda to get into a cell is by attaching to its outer membrane.  The genes and proteins contained by the lambda are then injected into the microbe.  Meyer used E. coli that didn’t make the molecules necessary for the virus to grab onto.  This meant that the only viruses that would survive were ones that mutated to use a different surface molecule.  Shockingly, within 15 days, Meyer’s experiment showed that viruses were using a new channel in E. coli known as OmpF.

Meyer re-conducted the experiment with 96 lines of the virus and E. coli.  Of those 96, 24 of the lines began to use OmpF as the pathway into the host.  Because of the repeating phenomenon, the genomes of the evolved viruses were sequenced, finding that four mutations were required for the viruses to thrive.  All four were required, not a single one, or even three out of the four.  Meyer estimated the chance of all four mutations arising at once was nearly impossible: one in a thousand, trillion, trillion. However, the lambda viruses evolved to contain all four mutations in a couple weeks on a regular basis.

As incredible as this experiment is, it is somewhat frightening.  Meyer showed how easily viruses can evolve completely new traits, which can lead to new diseases.  This is exactly the reason why when treating a sickness with antibiotics, the patient MUST finish taking the dosage until it is gone, otherwise the virus can come back even stronger.

 

 

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 Something in the Water: Tracing the Cholera Outbreak in Haiti April 13, 2012

Posted by srstone in Biology, Environment/Conservation, Evolution, Genetics, Health, Medicine, Policy, Science & Culture.
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 Something in the Water

Cholera Under the Microscope

When we go to the sink to get a glass of water from the sink, we trust that what the water is comprised of is safe for us to drink.  Most of us don’t give a thought as to what could be in it.  This is one of the luxuries of living in a first world country.  However, those in third world countries, such as Haiti, are not so fortunate.  Shortly after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, a cholera outbreak occurred.  When an outbreak like this occurs, the goal is to not only check the spread of the disease among Haitians, but to prevent the bacteria from swapping DNA with other cholera strains in the country to form a more dangerous bug much harder to treat.

Antibiotic-resistant Cholera: Mechanisms explored

Bacteria reproduce asexually by a process called binary fission.  Binary fission causes two genetically identical bacterial cells to be produced.  If this was the only method bacteria had to procreate, treating a disease with antibiotics would be simple.  Antibiotics aim to either kill bacteria directly or hamper their ability to grow and reproduce.  This can be done by crippling the production of the bacterial cell wall and inhibiting protein, DNA, or RNA synthesis. 

However, when we put our bodies on the attack with the use of antibiotics, bacteria respond by playing their side with different defensive mechanisms.  Some of these mechanisms include changing the permeability of their membranes.  For example, bacteria can decrease the number of channels available for the antibiotics to enter the cell.  Another mechanism works by changing the actual physical structure of the antibiotic once it enters the cell so that the drugs can’t bind the way they were designed to in order to have an effect.  Although both of these mechanisms prevent antibiotics from carrying out their job, bacterial recombination is the most common form of developing antibacterial resistance.  When this happens, bacteria gain genetic variation by swapping DNA with other bacteria.  This allows the bacteria to acquire resistance to the drug.  A plasmid, which is a circular piece of DNA, can encode resistance to multiple antibiotics. Thus if one bacterial cell in the environment has evolved resistance to an antibiotic, it can easily share that information with other surrounding bacteria leading to an epidemic of widespread antibacterial resistance.   A transposon, known as a “jumping gene”, can jump ship from DNA to DNA molecule.  The transposon then becomes part of the plasmid.

Where did it come from?

Cholera, which had never been seen before in Haiti prior to the earthquake, had the advantage.  Nations offering their help focused on the earthquake recovery while cholera entered Haiti under the radar.  Reducing the fatality rate from cholera has been a success; however the response was slow to fully develop.  The most likely story is that cholera spawned from a Nepalese volunteer at the Minustah base.  Understandably, no one wanted to take responsibility for bringing an epidemic to a country that already needed all the help they can get. 

To resolve the “blame-game”, Danish and American scientists collaborated to determine where the cholera came from.  Haiti’s cholera strain and Nepal’s cholera strain of the bacteria were examined using the most comprehensive type of analysis: whole-genome sequence typing.  Virtually identical, the Nepalese were forced to accept blame.  Another method, pulse-field gel electrophoresis was also used as evidence.  Scientists found that cholera erupted in Nepal in July 2010, but was under control the following month in August.  Unfortunately, this was the same month that Nepalese soldiers left for a recovery mission in Haiti.        

Resolutions?

Through the application of genetics, the cholera strain has been identified.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve Haiti’s problems.  Only 12% of the population has access to piped, treated water.  The rest find their water in rivers and wells.  These are the same rivers that contain feces and that Haitians wash their clothes in.  Vaccinations and supportive care will aid in the conquering of cholera, but until safe water is more readily accessible, the country needs to be prepared for round two.

A Typical Haitian Laundry Room