Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tales from Home Economics

I come from a family of teachers. The newest addition to my teaching family is my mother-in-law Ellen, who teaches Home Economics to middle school students. As you can imagine, she sometimes has to get REALLY creative to hold the attention of that age group!

Now, cooking often involves a bit of microbiology, like using yeast to make bread dough rise. Many of Ellen's students are indeed surprised to learn that they are adding LIVE MICROBES to the dough. Some even feel bad about killing so many microbes to make a loaf of bread. But how do yeast make the dough rise? The explanation Ellen gives is this:

The yeast eat sugars in the dough and 'burp' or 'fart' out gas.

Can you imagine the expressions on her students' faces? Her statement is accurate, in the same way good soil is really made up of worm poop. For better or for worse, when microbes are used in food products you will end up eating something that has been excreted from a microbe. Thank goodness it is all so delicious!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What can the zombie apocolypse teach us about microbiology? Part 1

You may not have known it, but Madison is both an epicenter of top-notch microbiology research AND zombie rights. The latest zombie lurch organized by COLD (Coalition of the Living Dead) inspired me to talk a little about what zombies can teach us about microbiology. What's on my BRAAAAIIIIN today are the concepts of fitness and selection.

In the latest zombie flick "Zombieland" the protagonist is a neurotic introvert, and he credits his success in a world overrun by zombies to his obsessive adherence to a set of survival rules and a lack of friends who could turn into zombies and devour him. His traits did not make him very popular or successful in the pre-zombie world.

A simple way to think of fitness is the capability to persist and continue your species. Based on this definition, our nerdy protagonist was not very fit, was he? He didn't have many resources and he certainly wasn't a hit with the ladies.

But then the world changes, and zombies kill off a huge portion of what was once considered a normal, healthy population. Under this different set of demands--under different selection--he is left to prosper.

In summary, different environments can select for different traits. As long the selection doesn't kill off ALL individuals, then those that possess the traits endure the selection and subsequently reproduce would be considered the most fit.

I think you'll find cinematic history is full heroes and heroines that had traits that helped them survive very unusual situations!

COMING SOON IN PART 2: In a world overrun by antibiotics, what are we selecting for?

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Sweet Sound of Microbiology

As a fiddle enthusiast, I felt compelled to link you to an inspiring story: fungi are being used to age modern wood into Stradavarius-quality wood, and create an award-winning bioviolin:

Fiddling with Fungi

Not only can microbes perform simple chemical reactions efficiently, they can also perform complex, almost mysterious aging processes to give soy sauce its flavor and violins their timbre. How sweet the sound of microbiology can be!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Why use microbes to make biofuels?

Some fuels are easier to access than others. Biomass, for instance, represents a great deal of potential energy that’s tied up in very strong chains of molecules, such as cellulose. To get access to that energy, what you need is a molecular wood chipper: something that can break down tough chains into molecules we CAN use, like ethanol.

The problem: breaking down tough, energy-containing compounds into useable fuel sources.

The solution: microbes (bacteria, yeast, algae, etc.)

You may be asking yourself: why use microbes to break these things down? Don’t we have chemicals that can do the same thing?

I’d answer your question with another question:

Why do we use microbes for making beer, or cheese? Why didn’t your grandma wheel in a tank of gas to bubble into the bread dough and make it rise? You’d probably say “because it’s easier” and you’d be right. She’d sprinkle in some yeast (microbes) to get the dough to rise. Humans and microbes have a rich, delicious history together when it comes to food, but the idea of using microbes to process biomass into biofuels is, by comparison, quite new.

Microbes are tiny toolkits that can break down molecules or build new ones—often more efficiently than a chemist in a lab can. A microbe’s toolkit has developed over endless generations to be as cheap and effective as it can be. So why reinvent the wheel? Just as silk worms were harnessed by humans to create raw silk for fabrics, we can use microbes to perform complicated processes under simple conditions.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Just getting started!

It's a brave new adventure for a rogue graduate student: a science blog!

I came up with all sorts of clever names for the blog, like "The Sound of Science" and "Simply Science" but amazingly, the internet is chock-full of cleverly-named science blogs and podcasts. In the end, I found that "Tiny Topics" was not YET taken.

Undoubtedly, "Tiny Topics" will not be the most creative, most in-depth, or most up-to-speed science blog/podcast. My goal is to craft small morsels of science that don't take up much of your day to absorb, but might change the way you view the world around you (especially the parts you can't see).

"Tiny Topics" is all about small science for a great big world. Enjoy!