Monday, June 17, 2013

Diarrhea, international politics and genome sequencing

At this time two years ago, European countries were in the grip of a severe outbreak of foodborne illness. From May to July 2011, over 4,000 people were sickened, and at least 50 people died. The culprit was a bacterium called Escherichia coli. You might find this name familiar. We have E. coli living inside us as part of our gut microbial community. These E. coli quietly exist in symbiosis with us, processing some of the food we eat and possibly protecting us from pathogens. However, some strains of E. coli are not so mild-mannered. 

The strain of E. coli responsible for the 2011 European outbreak was equipped with the genetic weaponry to cause not only gastrointestinal illness, which includes bloody diarrhea, but also a potentially fatal condition called hemolytic-uremic syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure. Investigations of this outbreak impacted international politics and deployed cutting-edge technologies, ultimately demonstrating just how much these little microbes can disrupt our carefully constructed human lives.

Electron micrograph of E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000X.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Return from hiatus!

It's been about two years since my last post. Yikes!

I really enjoyed working on this blog, but my research life made it difficult to find time. After two years away, I'm going to attempt to resume the blog because... (1) it was a wonderful way for me to broaden my knowledge of microbiology (unfortunately that PhD didn't come with an automatic brain download of Bergey's Manual of Systematic Bacteriology. Or maybe fortunately) and (2) it is even more important now for scientists to engage with the public. It's our job to share the wonder of science with interested listeners/readers (and the not-so-interested).

I hope to have something new posted within a couple of weeks!