Thursday, December 31, 2009

Nature wins by a hair

When I first started doing lab work, I found all the specialized equipment quite glamorous. Especially the cold room—basically a walk-in fridge—which always billowed out fog when you opened the door and reminded me very much of the embryo storage room in Jurassic Park. In my lab, we’ve got centrifuges large and small, precision pipettors for measuring out droplets of chemicals, and lots of vials and beakers. In fact, there are whole companies focused on providing labs like ours with expensive, specialized equipment.

But if you look closely in every lab, you’ll find very normal items pressed into scientific service. After all, we scientists are in the business of innovation. In fact, some tools are actually the result of Mother Nature’s innovation, not ours. My favorite examples of nature-made scientific tools are cat whiskers and human eyelashes.

Some scientists study proteins by crystallizing them. One of the challenges of this approach can be getting BIG crystals to form. So sometimes big crystals are formed by micro-seeding a solution with smaller crystals. This requires a very small implement to pick up that small crystal (seed crystal). To this day, scientists sometimes use cat whiskers for the task. They are fine enough to grab a small crystal as you drag the whisker through the solution.

Another set of researchers works on the tiny nematode (worm-like creature) Caenorhabditis elegans. When your research subject is the about the size and length of an eyelash, how do you poke, prod, and transfer such a creature? With a human eyelash, that’s how.

It is a bit humbling that, despite all the sophisticated lab equipment available, sometimes the best tool for the job is something nature created!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Our bodies, ourselves, our microbial ecosystems

Winter has finally and unquestionably hit Madison, hard. Staring out at the wintry landscapes I’ve been reminded of how harsh and ever-changing a smaller set of landscapes—our bodies—can be.

Just as we live on a planet with different terrains and environments, microbes live on, and in, the human body. As you can imagine, some areas of your body are more forgiving than others. Your mouth is a great place to get food, but with all that saliva it can be hard for a microbe to STAY there. Your skin can be welcoming where it is moist (like your armpits or between your toes) but challenging where it becomes a dry, cragged desert around your elbows. And of course, there is your digestive tract, a warm, nutrient-rich home for millions of microbes.

Though all this probably sounds a bit creepy and makes you want to take a shower, please remember that living with microbes is the healthy norm. They were here long before we arrived on the scene: my friend Dr. Mark O. Martin has a saying about this: “First to evolve, last extinct” I believe. But I digress!

When it comes down to sheer numbers, scientists have estimated that in your body there are ten times as many bacterial cells as human cells. Another motto comes to mind: “You are born 100% human and will die 90% bacteria.”

So, who are all these microbes are and what are they doing with our bodies?

A new National Institute of Health (NIH) “roadmap initiative” aims to answer this question, or at least BEGIN to answer this question, with The Human Microbiome Project. Scientists across the country will be sampling various sites on the bodies of healthy and diseased individuals to ask “who’s there?” and “what are they doing?” Along the way, we may get some interesting insight into how much our microbes very from body site to body site, person to person, week to week, state to state . . . you get the picture!