Microbes are always hitting the headlines. Keep up to date with the latest microbiology news. Most stories are linked to the full article.
5th May, 2010
Microbe colony as big as Greece discovered19th April, 2010
A ‘microbial mat’ covering an area as big as Greece on the ocean floor, off the west coast of South America, has been discovered by scientists. The micro-organisms could be descended from some of the earliest life forms to have evolved on earth. The discovery is the latest find in the decade-long Census of Marine Life – an international project by more than 2,000 scientists from 80 countries to explore life in the oceans. The carpet of seabed microbes is deprived of both oxygen and light and seems to survive on a diet of hydrogen sulphide, while ‘breathing’ nitrates. The scientists believe the discovery could represent a present-day community of organisms descended from primitive microbes which first evolved about 3 billion years ago when there was no oxygen on the planet.
Lung virus vaccine hope18th April, 2010
A respiratory virus that can cause pneumonia claims the lives of up to 200,000 children worldwide every year, according to new research. Scientists from the University of Edinburgh found that 3.4 million children were hospitalised after contracting respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is the leading cause of lung infection in children. RSV normally infects children before the age of two and causes mild cold-like symptoms, but can lead to pneumonia. It is the most common reason for babies to be admitted to hospital during their first year of life. This is the first time the total number of child deaths from RSV has been quantified. Dr Harish Nair from the University of Edinburgh’s department of population health said, “Our greatest hope of fighting this virus is to develop a vaccine, but before we can implement an immunisation programme, we need to understand exactly how big a problem RSV poses.”
Further flaws in controversial Wakefield Lancet paper15th April, 2010
A bowel disorder that Dr Andrew Wakefield described as being linked to the MMR vaccine has been called into question by experts. In the infamous Lancet paper, published in 1998 and retracted in February this year, Dr Wakefield reported incidences of ‘non-specific colitis’ in children that had been injected with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Now, a pathologist who tested the original bowel biopsies has said that results were normal. Scientists say this is yet another example of a flaw in the research whose publication caused uptake of the MMR vaccination to plummet, leading to a rise in the incidence of measles outbreaks.
NHS use of silver wound dressings unjustified14th April, 2010
Experts say that the NHS is wasting millions on dressings containing silver, when the evidence to justify their use is not robust enough. Silver is known to have antimicrobial properties, although exactly how it works is still relatively unclear. It is used in many types of dressings for wounds, ulcers and burns. The NHS spent around £25 million on dressings containing the metal in 2006/7 - accounting for a quarter of the total cash spent on wound dressings. An editorial in the latest Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin describes how trials on effectiveness of silver-containing dressings have had small sample sizes and have not assessed the long-term effects of such products. The authors concluded, “Silver dressings are expensive and there have been few high-quality clinical trials to establish whether they have advantages over other, cheaper alternatives.”
Swine flu jab not linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome13th April, 2010
Fears that the H1N1 swine flu vaccination may increase incidence of a potentially lethal neurological condition are unfounded says a new study. Figures released by researchers from New Jersey Medical School say that there was no increase in cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) after the jab was introduced last year. Doctors were told to monitor patients who received the jab for signs of GBS, after the condition was linked to a similar vaccination for pandemic flu in 1976. More than five million people in Britain have now been given the H1N1 vaccination, which is still being offered to those considered to be at high risk from the infection.
Protozoan infection increases stroke risk13th April, 2010
A tropical protozoan disease could increase an individual’s risk of suffering a stroke, according to Spanish scientists. Chagas’ disease is endemic in parts of South America and is caused by the micro-organism Trypanosoma cruzi. A new study shows infection by the protozoan increases stroke risk through heart complications and blood clots. T. cruzi is transmitted through the bites of infected triatomine insects (also known as ‘kissing bugs’). Infections with T. cruzi are often asymptomatic, with acute infections more common in children. Symptoms of Chagas’ disease include high fever, muscle pain, rashes, liver and heart problems. As many patients with Chagas’ disease do not know they are infected, the Spanish scientists warn that doctors should be vigilant and say that screening stroke patients for Chagas’ disease should be considered.
GM viruses offer renewable energy hope12th April, 2010
Genetically modified viruses capable of splitting water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen atoms using sunlight could be used to produce high quantities of hydrogen fuel. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have replicated the first step of the method that plants use to photosynthesise, in the hope of producing unlimited amounts of green energy from water and sunlight alone. The scientists genetically engineered a harmless virus, called M13, which normally infects bacteria (a bacteriophage) to bind to a catalyst called iridium oxide and a biological pigment – zinc porphyrins. The viruses spontaneously arranged themselves into wire-like structures around these molecules, allowing the catalyst and pigment to effectively harvest sunlight to split water molecules. So far, the team has managed to use the viruses to split off oxygen and the next stage is to bring the hydrogen atoms together so they form hydrogen gas.
Professor Angela Belcher who led the research said that although there was much work to do on increasing the efficiency of the process, a prototype of a commercial product that carries out the water-splitting reaction could be developed within the next two years.
Norovirus levels twice as high this year11th April, 2010
The number of cases of norovirus was almost twice as high in the first three months of 2010 compared to the same period last year. Outbreaks of the virus –known as the ‘winter vomiting bug’ – have caused temporary closures of many schools and hospital wards all over the UK. Norovirus causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea in infected individuals. Experts believe that high levels of norovirus infection this winter could be due to a combination of a very cold winter and a highly infectious strain of the virus. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) warns that up to a million people could be affected by norovirus this year.
Grazing livestock can reduce greenhouse gas emissions7th April, 2010
German researchers studying emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide from grassland in Inner Mongolia have found that levels were reduced when sheep and cattle were grazed on the land. The gas is produced by microbes in the soil and when the grass is long, snow settles, keeping the ground warm and protecting the microbes. If the grass is kept short by grazing animals, the soil freezes and the microbes die out. Up to now environmentalists have believed that people should eat less red meat because ruminants such as cattle produce methane, another important greenhouse gas. The current study, published in the journal Nature, shows that allowing animals to graze on grasslands in certain countries is not necessarily bad for global warming. Nitrous oxide emissions from temperate grasslands are estimated to account for up to a third of the total amount of the gas produced annually.