What it takes...

There are endless answers to the question "What does it take?"
  • It takes a village to raise a child, (ok, it's mostly proverbial)
  • it takes 475 water molecules to make a snowflake (yes really, here's the study!)
  • it takes temperatures just below 0°C to freeze water. But does it really?!
Let's have a closer look at that (and since this is still "Mic'd up"), let's look at the impact bacteria can have on this.

Who you gonna call? Pt. 2

The last entry of this blog tried to answer the question why calling microbes for help is a good idea to protect you from sunburns. Sunburns are not only painful, they also make your skin age faster and increase your risk for skin cancer [1].

Recently, another bacterial hero emerged that might not you protect you from sunburns but it produces a compound that stops skin cancer. "Where can one find this heroic bacterium?", you ask. Thermal vents in the deep sea? The guts of exotic animals? Well, look no further than your own skin and you'll find it! Staphylococcus epidermidis is often outshone by its notorious cousin Staphylococcus aureus, but it's a bit of a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde itself. With its Jekyll-personality it's a normal bacterium found in the skin flora - but beware of the Hyde: S. epidermidis can make nasty-to-treat biofilms and cause severe infections in immuno-compromised patients.

Now, researchers have added another personality to S. epidermidis' psychographic: that of a melanoma (skin cancer) -fighting hero! Certain strains of S. epidermidis produce a small compound called 6-N-hydroxyaminopurine (6-HAP) [2]. Chemically, 6-HAP resembles adenine - a DNA building block (theme-alert!) - and that's also the secret behind the anti-cancer effect. DNA building block look-alikes are used to treat viral infections and certain cancers because they inhibit the synthesis of new DNA. These molecules are similar enough to the proper DNA building blocks to be built into the DNA but different enough from them to terminate the DNA synthesis because the chemical bonds can not form properly.
Structural similarity between 6-HAP (left) and adenine (right). Source: PubChem

The isolated compound was effective in reducing the growth of cancer cell lines and reduced tumor formation in mice that were injected with rapidly growing melanoma cells. Importantly, mice that had the 6-HAP-producing S. epidermidis in their skin flora developed less tumors after UV-radiation than mice with 6-HAP-negative S. epidermidis. Hence, the bacteria not only produce a tumor-inhibiting substance but they can also produce it at (mouse-)clinically relevant concentrations [2].

The bacteria living in and on our body have been associated with a plethora of diseases: metabolic diseases, gastrointestinal cancer, respiratory diseases, mental illnesses, obesity, you name it...[3] Many of these findings still need to pass the test of time, but if it holds true that carrying certain strains of S. epidermidis can protect from skin cancer, it should be added to that list! Yet another reason to appreciate the bacteria on your body and wish them a happy #WorldMicrobiomeDay!

[1] Polefka et al. Effect of solar radiation on the skin. J Cosmet Dermatol. June 2012
[2] Nakatsuji et al. A commensal strain of Staphylococcus epidermidis protects against skin neoplasia. Science Advances, 28 February 2018
[3] Wang et al. The Human Microbiota in Health and Disease. Engineering, February 2017

Who you gonna call?

If there's something strange in you neighborhood
Who you gonna call?
If there's something weird
And it don't look good
Who you gonna call?

Every summer's day (and even the first days of spring) brings the same problem to me. SUNBURNS! I have yet to find a sunscreen that doesn't become super sticky within minutes - especially on the beach. Sunscreen and sand are simply a terrible match! But I don't want to leave out the sunscreen, get painful sunburns and even increase my risk of skin cancer. 
Who am I going to call to solve my problems?! Well, maybe in the future, bacteria will be the heroes answering my call!

What is what in science communication?

Scientists wishing to talk to a broad audience about their research have more opportunities to do so than ever. But unfortunately, the variety of science communication events can also create some confusion and leave scientists wondering: Which format is right for me? What do I have to prepare? Am I even eligible to speak?
To clear up some confusion and also help interested non-scientists find the most suitable event to attend, here's a little "who is who" or rather "what is what" of events aimed at science communication!

Don't touch my coffee!

Some researchers going after the microbiome of everyday-items don't shy away from anything - not even from one of the holiest items in the household: the coffee machine [1]!

It's not particularly surprising that coffee machines are sprawling with bacteria. They are warm and moist - bacteria's paradise! But the surprising part: there are caffeine-degrading bacteria in coffee machines. Yes: CAFFEINE. DEGRADING. BACTERIA! Scary, huh? Does that mean I've been drinking decaf all along? How I am supposed to generate love for bacteria if they dare touching my coffee? They should know better than to touch a Ph.D. student's coffee!

Intuitive Microbiology

"Disgust is intuitive microbiology"

(Steven Pinker) 
We are often nauseated by reports about the bacteria found on household items. Spongesdishwashers and coffee machines are sprawling with bacteria! News reports on these findings usually feature a scary headline and then go on to report that most of the found bacteria are benign, only a select few could potentially be harmful under certain conditions. But the damage is done: Bacteria are perceived as disgusting and their mere presence symbolizes the necessity to clean. But does our intuitive microbiology match the actual microbiology?

(Bacterial) Nightmare before Christmas

Christmas is over: the presents have been unwrapped, the tree lost all its needles, all the food you could possible fit in your stomach has been eaten and all the fights with your family have been fought. Yes, in many families conflicts over Christmas are as sure as death and taxes. But why do we get in fights with the family – the people we know best? Maybe BECAUSE they are the people who know us best and know which buttons to push to get us wound up!