Blood cell infected with malaria parasite

Malaria is caused by the single-celled parasite Plasmodium. It is transmitted from one person to another by certain species of blood sucking mosquito. The parasite spends part of its complex life cycle inside red blood cells.

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Microbes are always hitting the headlines. Keep up to date with the latest microbiology news. Most stories are linked to the full newspaper article.

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  • A Salmonella cause for deadly epidemic

    24th February, 2017

    In the 16th century, up to 80% of Mexico’s native population died from an unknown plague. In a new study, researchers at the Natural History Museum of Denmark report that the microbe responsible for killing a huge proportion of Mexican highland inhabitants in 1545 and 1576 may have been a form of Salmonella. Various scientists had previously suggested that the major disease outbreaks in the region could have been measles, smallpox, typhus or even a viral haemorrhagic fever. However, by comparing the bacterial DNA extracted from people buried in the region with a database of modern bacterial genomes, the Danish research team were able to reconstruct two genomes of a strain called Salmonella Paratyphi C. As this now-rare strain is transmitted through faecal matter, the chaos that occurred during the Spanish conquest may have allowed S. Paratyphi C to run rampant.

  • Baby asthma risk from yeast?

    24th February, 2017

    A yeast found in the guts of newborns in Ecuador could be used to predict if the children will develop asthma, says a team of scientists from the University of British Columbia, Canada. In the new study, there seemed to be a link between the presence of a yeast from the Pichia genus and asthma – three-month-olds identified with Pichia in their faecal samples appeared to be more likely to develop the disease by the time they reached five years of age. The research group is not yet sure why this may be the case, but suggest that it might be the way in which Pichia interacts with other microbes in the newborns’ guts.

  • The mine life for ancient microbes

    24th February, 2017

    NASA scientists have recently found microbes inside crystals that have been in a Mexican lead, zinc and silver mine for up to 60,000 years. The surprising part? They were still alive. The study shows that these micro-organisms – which were mostly bacteria – seem to have adapted to survive on sulphite, manganese and copper oxide. Excitingly, the vast majority of these microbes have never been seen before. Their extreme survival skills mean that there could be many other undiscovered microbes living in hostile environments where researchers would never have thought to look for them.

  • Combat antibiotic resistance with dragon blood

    24th February, 2017

    Komodo dragons have a reputation for being impressive, not least due to their size and fearsomeness. New research by a team from George Mason University, USA, now suggests that these giant lizards are even more incredible than previously thought – they seem to have antimicrobial elements in their blood to help protect them from potentially deadly infections. Most animals’ immune systems make compounds called cationic antimicrobial peptides (CAMPs), which help protect them from a variety of different pathogens. The recent study found that some CAMPs produced by komodo dragons were able to combat Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus – species of bacteria that are becoming increasingly resistant to currently available drugs. The findings suggest that these peptides may potentially lead to new much-needed antibiotic treatments.

  • Sleep and mutate

    16th February, 2017

    In the antibiotic arms race between bacteria and scientists, the microbes appear to have upped their game once again, according to a research team at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. Previous studies showed that, in a bid to avoid being killed by antibiotics, some bacteria were able to evolve a mechanism that kept them dormant until the course of treatment was finished. The solution to this was simply to extend the treatment, but a new study shows that bacteria are now able to lie dormant, then develop resistance 20 times faster than normal as soon as they awaken, rendering longer antibiotic treatments useless. Through further testing, the study suggests that the dormant mode both protects the bacteria from antibiotics, and also acts as a stepping stone for the mutations needed for the microbes to develop resistance. These findings could have important implications for the design and development of new antibiotics, in order to avoid this.

  • Manipulating ticks to stop diseases

    16th February, 2017

    Many severe bacterial and parasitic diseases are transmitted to us through tick bites, but what makes ticks so resilient to these microbes that they themselves are not harmed when infected? Scientists at the University of Maryland, USA, believe they have the answer in their new study: a molecular pathway that recognises and protects the tick against Borrelia burgdorgeri, the cause of Lyme disease; and Anaplasma phagocytophilum and A. marginale, two bacterial species that cause rickettsial infections. The research team were able to both deactivate the pathway – making the ticks vulnerable to the bacteria – and over-activate it – making the ticks’ immune systems combat the bacteria even more efficiently. The ability to manipulate this immune response could mean a decline in tick-borne diseases in humans and animals, if the arachnids can be made to be less vulnerable to infection altogether.

  • Healers from the Amazon onto something

    16th February, 2017

    Healers from indigenous groups living in the Amazon have been using Brazilian peppertree berries in their medicines for years, and new research by a team from Emory University, USA, shows that they might be onto something. By breaking the berries’ chemical components down and testing them on mice, the researchers discovered that the berries contained a compound that can inhibit methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA – a ‘superbug’ that has become resistant to many currently available antibiotics. The compound works by disarming MRSA so that the bacteria cannot produce the toxins that damage skin tissue, allowing the immune system to heal wounds. This discovery may hold potential for new antibiotics that do not kill bacteria, but merely disable them, so that they do not get the chance to evolve resistance as they do with current treatments.

  • Sea bacteria to help combat climate change?

    16th February, 2017

    Researchers the University of East Anglia, UK, and Ocean University of China have discovered that many ocean-dwelling bacteria can synthesise a molecule (DMSP), which when broken down by other microbes produces dimethyl sulfide (DMS) – a gas that scientists believe have a role in regulating climate, as it helps form clouds. It was previously thought that only more complex organisms like seaweeds and phytoplankton were able to produce DMSP. Finding that marine bacteria are also able to suggests that the environmental role the compound and its producers play in climate regulation has been very much underestimated. Additionally, as these bacteria do not need sunlight for growth, DMSP production does not need to be limited to the surface waters of the sea, as was previously believed.

  • Extreme temperatures, radiation and no air – no problem

    9th February, 2017

    Radiation, extreme temperatures and the vacuum of space – just one of these is usually enough to kill the majority of the inhabitants of Earth. However, two microbes sent to the International Space Station (ISS) by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology IZI, Germany, were able to withstand all three combined. Sphaerocystis sp., an alga isolated from Svalbard in Norway, and Nostoc sp., a cyanobacterium found in Antarctica, survived temperature fluctuations of between -20 °C and 50 °C, the lack of oxygen and various types of UV radiation while suspended for 16 months outside of the ISS. The research team are now keen to look into the adaptations that allow the two micro-organisms to endure such extreme environments.

  • Sharing is caring, if you’re family

    9th February, 2017

    Some bacteria kill distant relatives so that their immediate families can thrive, a study by scientists at the University of Edinburgh, UK, has found. The new research shows that Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium responsible for cholera, cooperates and shares resources with closely-related microbes, but kills off rival strains by injecting them with toxins via a mechanism called the type VI secretion system. Further investigation demonstrated that genetically similar bacteria are not affected by the toxins, allowing them to cooperate and flourish together.

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