Field of Science

Top tips this Christmas:

It is the season to be jolly - full of festive spirit and cheer. However the reality of Christmas for me is eating way too much turkey and cake. Then I try to eat all the chocolates in one go before New Year.. So the diet can begin!

Is that all we need to worry about? Eating so much we can’t move for a week? I’d love to say ‘yes’ however there’s a lot that can go wrong during the festive season.

The most obvious thing that tends to go wrong is the Turkey! We’ve all seen the adverts around this time of year of a giant turkey running around ruining Christmas. Food poisoning is the most common illness during Christmas. The most common cause.. Not thoroughly defrosting the turkey! It may not have occurred to you but a family size turkey needs to be defrosted in the fridge for 2 days! So unless you want to be on the toilet for the rest of the week (my guess is no you don’t) just follow the defrosting advice and cook your turkey properly.
Festive Figures
Christmas is also the time to enjoy those extra days off with a little ‘tipple’ of wine, brandy, sherry etc. Combined with the boozy Christmas pudding, cake and liquor chocolates this is why it is the season to be ‘merry’. Alcohol consumption increases by 40% in December! Here are a few funny (and real) festive figures of the reasons why people end up in hospital over Christmas.. Enjoy!
  • 2,080 due to being carried, and dropped by another person last year
  • 46,460 due to falling from something on the same level (most common.. falling off the toilet!)
  • 18,610 due to people striking themselves against an object (like walking into a wall!)
  • 18,570 were injured due to the simple slip on ice or snow
  • 3,680 due to a rider of an animal/ animal drawn vehicle transport accident
  • 790 due to contact with hot appliances
  • 1,420 due to falling from trees
  • 4 broken arms due to cracker pulling accidents
  • 5 people injured by out of control ‘Scalextric’cars (1999)
  • 18 people had serious burns trying on a new jumper with a lit cigarette in their mouth.
  • 19 people have died in the last 3 years believing that Christmas decorations were chocolate (1997-2000)
  • 31 people have died since 1996 by watering their Christmas tree while the fairy lights were plugged in.

A non-christmas one that made me laugh was this:
  • 460 admitted in 2009/10 due to contact with a powered lawn mower!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year everyone! Xx


Microbiology and Cancer

Cancer is thought to be caused by a number of factors including; gender, diet and genetic pre-dispositions. However it looks like microorganisms are another name to be added to that list.

The Hepatitis C & B Viruses cause Liver Cancer, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) causes Cervical Cancer, Helicobacter pylori is associated with Stomach Cancer & more recently the throat/oral bacterium Fusobacterium and its association with Colon Cancer.
What does this mean? Well there is currently a highly effective vaccine for Hepatitis B. This should mean that the incidence should decrease, however increased alcohol consumption and obesity also increase the risk of this type of cancer.

In the past few years a vaccine against HPV has been developed and is now given to teenage girls to prevent them from getting the virus and decreasing the risk of Cervical Cancer. HPV has also been linked to throat cancer and causes genital warts. If this vaccine is effective against the disease then hopefully the vaccine can be administered to other ‘at risk’groups.

H. pylori has been found in gastric ulcers and, as well as other factors, increases the risk of stomach cancer. In the last few weeks scientists have now found a link between the oral/throat bacterium Fusobacterium and colon cancer. The scientists found the organism was present in the colon of individuals with the disease.
Fusobacterium necrophorum gram stain under the microscope

Fusobacterium species are bacteria which thrive in low oxygen environments (they are also rather smelly and give us bad breath). They are found in the mouth and contribute to dental plaque and sore throats. The reason I’m talking a bit more about this organism is because I studied it for my undergraduate dissertation. I studied the organism Fusobacterium necrophorum and its association with ‘Persistent sore throat syndrome’. F. necrophorum was found to be the second commonest cause of bacterial sore throats in the UK, particularly amongst young adults.
Fusobacteriumin Colon Cancer? It can cause disease in the upper respiratory tract, what’s not to say it couldn’t further down? Well TWO teams of scientists identified the bacterium to be present in colon cancer patients. The organism is rarely found in the healthy colon, but has been found in patients with a disease known as Ulcerative Colitis (inflammation of the digestive tract), which itself is a risk factor for Colon Cancer.
Further research is needed, but if Fusobacterium is a risk factor for Colon Cancer then diagnostic tests could be developed. As well as this antibiotics and vaccines could be trialled to see if they have an effect on prevention and treatment of the cancer.
So some cancers seem to have a microbiological risk factor. This has seen us take a new look at Cancer and ways to treat it. However the best action is prevention so reducing the risks such as drinking, smoking and obesity as well as these microbiological risks is essential.


Bubbles bubbles: But why are they white?

Last night I got a very interesting 'tweet' from a friend wondering why the 'blue' liquid 'bubble bath' produced 'white' bubbles instead of blue ones?

As I was half asleep I thought it must have something to do with one of the ingredients in 'bubble bath' that causes the 'bubbles' enabling them to be white no matter what colour the initial liquid is. However, upon waking up this morning I realised an ingredient wouldn't make any difference...

:  ": Why r bubbles in baths so white? Surely blue liquid = blue
                                 bubbles? ?.... :D xxx

Not Chemistry but Physics
Why? If you think about it, the 'surf' on a wave is always white isn't it? And when you pour a fizzy drink (be it cola, lemonade or Fanta orange) there's always a white 'fiz'.

So the cause of the 'white bubbles' must have nothing to do with the colour of the liquid, or type of liquid (seeing as I doubt coca cola and bubble bath have the same ingredients?).

So why are they white?
Well what colour lights are in your bathroom? I'm guessing regular white bulbs? (see where I'm going?). At first I thought it has to have something to do with chemistry, but it's actually physics at work here.

A Prism - How white light can be split into different colours
(Taken from Pink Floyd's Album cover: Dark side of the moon)

White Bubbles:
What is a bubble? Well it's a spherical shaped thin layer of 'translucent' liquid, with essentially an 'empty' centre (I don't mean 'space empty' i just mean 'no liquid in the middle empty'). The outside of this 'bubble' is full of bright light from your bathroom (otherwise known as 'white' light). The inside of this bubble is somewhat darker as there's no light souce inside the bubble. So what happens is some of the 'white light' from the room 'reflects' off the outer surface of the bubble (like a mirror) and what our eyes see is 'white'. This therefore gives us a 'white bubble'.

White bubbles in your bath (taken from Clipart)

Still want colour bubbles?
So there you go, you now know the answer to the question: 'Why do we have white bubbles?' However, if you really want blue/green/red bubbles - you can!
Just change that bathroom light bulb to a red/blue or green one and then you can enjoy your colourful bubbles! ;-)

What could be on your contact lenses?

I’ve just been watching ‘Monster Jellyfish Attack!’ (Yes I watch some strange programs in between X-factor and Eastenders!) and it reminded me of a weird microorganism I’m currently working with.
No – it’s not a tiny jellyfish; it’s actually a type of Amoeba species known as Acanthamoeba. Unlike bacteria and viruses, this is different (and a bit of a pain to work with as they’re easily contaminated and affected by the slightest change in temperature), and it actually feeds on gram-negative bacteria such as E. coli.
Eats bacteria? Sounds good doesn’t it? Wrong!

What is Acanthamoeba?
This microorganism is a particular problem with contact lenses (hence the title of this post). This amoeba is one of the main reasons contact lenses have to be left in a disinfectant solution before being used. Acanthamoeba polyphaga is a free-living pathogenic amoeba that lives in the soil and water. If contact lenses are not cleaned correctly, rinsed with water or contaminated due to poor hygiene then an infection is likely.
This Amoeba can cause’ Keratitis’ - which can be a potentially blinding infection of the cornea of the eye! So, disinfection of contact lenses is highly important. Hydrogen peroxide is one of the most effective disinfectants against this organism, and is used to clean most contact lenses.
Acanthamoeba polyphagia - Light microscope x1000

Acanthamoeba and me?
 So, I’m currently working with this organism – Why? If I’m not carefully I could blind myself!
Well, I’m working with it to hopefully increase hydrogen peroxide’s effectiveness against this organism (e.g. quicker kill time and lower concentrations to be used).
A quicker kill time would be great as it means less time leaving your contact lenses in disinfectant and more time wearing them. A lower concentration seems silly right? A higher concentration of hydrogen peroxide means more kill? Well hydrogen peroxide is quite a dangerous, flammable chemical so reducing this risk would be a good thing J

Worse things than going blind?
Not only can Acanthamoeba polyphaga cause blindness - it has also been shown, by the University of Bath, that MRSA can replicate inside of it! (causing more of a problem). Also, if you’re immunocompromised (HIV, chemotherapy), then this organism can cause ‘encephalitis’ - which is an infection of the brain.

So, now you know what could be lurking on your contact lenses – you’ll be making sure they’re thoroughly cleaned before wearing them!

References:   Huws, S. A., Smith, A. W., Enright, M. C., Wood, P. J. and Brown, M. R. W. (2006), Amoebae promote persistence of epidemic strains of MRSA. Environmental Microbiology, 8: 1130–1133. doi: 10.1111/j.1462-2920.2006.00991.x

GNSO and Clostridium difficile

Earlier this week it was reported that US researchers had made an interesting discovery regarding the way our cells in our gut fight off the toxins produced by Clostridium difficile. It was reported in ‘Nature Medicine’ that a chemical known as GSNO (S-nitrosoglutathione), which is produced naturally by the cells in the gut, was able to deactivate the toxin and prevent inflammation and diarrhoea.
C. difficile vegetative cells (pink) and spores (green)
This discovery means that this could offer a new way to treat the bacterium other than using conventional treatments, such as antibiotics (which resistance is causing a problem).
It’s also due to antibiotics (a patient may be being treated for a chest infection) that can cause a toxic C. difficile to multiply in the gut (due to antibiotics wiping out most of the ‘healthy/good’ bacteria).
Most strains of C. difficile are harmless and are part of the normal ‘healthy/good’ gut bacteria, however if a toxic strain is exposed to a patient on antibiotics then this can cause disease.

Image 1 C.difficle toxin infecting a cell
So how does GSNO prevent the toxin from making us ill? Well the C.difficile toxin is basically ‘too big’ to enter the cell, so it has to ‘cleave’ into a smaller chunk that can enter the cell to cause inflammation and diarrhoea. (See image 1).
However, GSNO prevents the toxin from splitting into a smaller chunk. This means that it can not enter the cell and cause inflammation and diarrhoea (See image 2).

Image 2 GSNO preventing the C. difficile toxin from entering the cell

If this molecule can be further studied then it could give light to new therapies to deal with and prevent C. difficile infection in patients. This type of therapy is a long way off, but it is exciting! Unlike antibiotics, this kind of therapy would not give rise to antibiotic resistance and could be a vital step to help reduce the disease.

Reference/further info: (accessed: 23rd August 2011)

“Are we doomed?”

#SciDoom A frightening blog post title to say the least!
I first had visions of zombies.. but then something as tiny as an antibiotic resistant bacterium, or as big as an asteroid, could cause us all impending doom. However.. Something like an antibiotic, or perhaps blowing up the asteroid, could save us?
So.. I’m back to the zombies. Most classic zombie movies start by someone becoming 'infected' by an animal, or mutated organism, that has a contagious virus. This virus then spreads throughout the human population turning us all, but a few, into the mindless, slow 'walking dead'. These movies either end happily (a cure is found) or badly (no cure is found and everybody becomes a zombie).

Could it happen?
But could this ‘zombie-type doom’ really happen? My first reaction would be ‘No - are you having a laugh?’ however, when you look closer, there is some science here that could possibly make this happen..
Artificial viruses & zoonotic diseases could all cause a ‘zombie-type doom’ and the virus could be blood borne, or even water borne to cause worldwide devastation – with no means of escape.

Artificial viruses?
Scientists are manipulating viruses daily (in order to find out how they work and to develop vaccines). Some scientists may even change the virus completely giving rise to a new virus. A new virus, if it was to escape from a secure research facility, could be devastating – particularly if it’s a ‘zombie-type doom’ virus.
Still doubting me? One such virus, the Variola virus (the virus that causes smallpox) has been studied by scientists for years since it was eradicated in 1979. So if this disease was eradicated, why study it? Well studying this virus can help develop vaccines against similar viruses that are a problem today. However, if this virus was to escape from these secure research facilities then it could cause a viral outbreak. Worst case scenario: If this virus has been manipulated or artificially altered then it could cause a ‘zombie-type doom’

Zoonotic diseases?
Ok, so if our scientists are incredibly careful people then an artificial ‘zombie-type doom’ virus is unlikely to be developed, or escape. But.. What about zoonotic diseases?
Animal diseases have been well known to spread to humans; some common examples are HIV, Rabies, Plague, Salmonellosis, Avian influenza, Swine influenza, Ebola and BSE.
So if a dog was to be infected by a ‘zombie-type doom’ virus then, not only would this make the dog a zombie but if this was a zoonotic disease – then a bite could transfer the disease to humans. Once transferred to humans the disease could spread through the community leading to the ‘zombie-type doom’.
An example from last year is the case of Swine Flu. This disease was just present in pigs until the virus mutated and crossed the 'speices barrier', enabling it to cause disease in humans. The disease spread rapidly due to it being transmitted via aerosols. Also; Swine Flu managed to cause a global outbreak due to most people using air travel and working in busy cities. The virus was also capable of causing fatal disease in 'healthy adults' – making it a dangerous disease.

Can we be saved?
Yes and No is the short answer. Yes - if we could develop a vaccine before we all become 'zombies' (or we grab a cricket bat and do what they did in 'Shaun  of the dead'). No - if we could not develop a vaccine in time.
But don't worry - hopefully this 'zombie type doom' will not occur - however viral and other microbial diseases are a certainity. Diseases like Swine Flu will still cause us problems.

World Hepatitis Day

It's world Hepatitis day and this blood borne viral disease shouldn't be forgotten. Hepatitis B is the most common and can cause severe liver disease (including liver cancer). There is a vaccine for Hepatitis B, however it can only be given if you are not infected with the virus. If infected highly effective anti-viral drugs and interferons are available. The trouble with this disease is that many people are unaware they have it, making it a huge problem globally.

A few facts:
  • There are 5 forms of the virus (A, B & C being most common with D & E being more rare)
  • 10 million drug users worldwide have Hepatitis C
  • 1.3 million drug users worldwide have Hepatitis B
  • Approximatley half of the UK's drug users have been infected with Hepatitis C virus

So, Hepatitis should not be forgotten and can be transmitted, like HIV, via bodily fluids, such as intraveneous drug users and sexual intercourse (however hepatitis is 50 to100 times more infectious than HIV).

Key messages: Be AWARE of Hepatitis, get vaccinated, get tested, get treated.

World Health Organization (WHO) (accessed 28/07/11)
BBC News (accessed 28/07/11)

Infection control at sea - should we be taking note?

Disease outbreaks at sea are just as dangerous as hospital, school and community outbreaks on land. However, this is often forgotten by excited tourists embarking on a much needed holiday. When thousands of holiday makers from across the world come together on a cruise ship the results can be devastating. Due to a ship being isolated in the middle of the ocean an outbreak can spread fast, leaving individuals defenceless and with no means of escape.
Outbreaks on cruise ships in previous years, such as the Mediterranean cruise norovirus outbreak in May 2010 (The Guardian 21/5/2010), have ruined many holidays.
Norovirus infections consist of diarrhoea and vommiting. They are also easily transmitted from person to person, making them a common problem in the community.

To prevent these outbreaks cruise liners have had to increase infection control procedures which, after recently travelling on one, I feel are highly effective and should be taken note of.
  • Before embarking all passengers have to fill out a 'health questionnaire'. If a passenger has been unwell in the past 7 days this is known before departure and infection control procedures can be implemented quickly.
  • When on the ship it seems you can't walk more than 10 meters before you see an alcohol gel hand dispenser. If you try and avoid these it won't be long before a staff member greats you with a friendly squirt of hand gel before dinner. Alcohol gel is highly effective at killing viruses, that can be transmitted via hand to hand contact, which reduces the chances of an outbreak occurring.

As well as this, staff regularly disinfect the corridors and other communal areas.
If, After all of these measures, a passenger becomes ill then they are immediately issolated from other passengers. This may not be ideal for the individual but it does prevent a large outbreak from occurring.

I feel that cruise liners take infection control very seriously and deal with it effectively. Therefore, perhaps schools and hospitals should stand up and take note in this fight against infection.

Badgers and TB

Apparently a 'Badger cull' is expected in the South-West of England to help reduce Bovine Tuberculosis (or TB in cows). Bovine Tuberculosis is caused by Mycobacterium bovis and is an acid fast bacillus bacterium that causes lower respiratory disease in cattle (see image below)
A Mycobacterium species similar to the organism responsible for Bovine TB
So is this the way we should be dealing with it? If a human case of TB arrises we don't go round killing humans to help reduce it. However it's not the cows we're killing in this case - it's the badgers.
Badger's carry Bovine TB without it causing them any harm - however if they come into contact with cattle then this can cause them to transmit the disease to a herd. This can then give rise to diseased animals and end up an economic loss to the farmer.

Badgers and TB are like Chickens and Salmonella. Salmonella won't make the chickens ill, however if we were to come in contact with a chicken (dead or alive) and not wash our hands then we'd probably end up with Salmonella poisoning.
But hang on.. we didn't go round killing off chickens? (mainly because they provide us with food) so why the badgers? Well we don't use them for food.. but wouldn't a vaccine be more of an idea? (chickens get vaccinated against a type of Salmonella that causes food poisoning).

Also earlier this month Imperial College London said that new analysis confirmed that a 'badger cull' may increase the risk of bovine TB to nearby herds.

So for or against the Badger cull? I feel it won't stop the spread of Bovine TB (and with the information above probably increase it!). It may reduce it but a vaccine for badgers or cattle would be a better option and would keep the badger loving people happy

Thanks for reading :)

Antibiotic resistance - First E. coli now Gonorrhoea

It was E. coli a few weeks ago, now it's Gonorrhoea.. will it ever end? No is the most probable answer. Unfortunatly over recent years an increase in antibiotic resistant microorganisms (or SUPER bugs) have become a common feature in the news.
Why is this? Well due to my recent post about 'World Health day' and 'Super bugs' we could go straight away and start blaming antibiotics. Misuse of them could be to blame but also there are hardly any new antibiotics being developed at the moment - and this is a problem as.. worse case scenario.. these bugs could develop resistance to almost all of our current antibiotics.
What does this mean? Well.. we'll probably have to start living in a giant bubble as it means these diseases we've treated with antibiotics (pneumonia, TB, meningitis) would end up in higher mortality rates (not good).

So what can be done? Well hand washing, disinfection and using antibiotics correctly is something everyone can do... but scientists? Research into this area of new antibiotics or other ways is needed urgently! However to do this scientists need funding, and that relies on the governement hopefully recognising that antibiotic resistance is a real problem and could be a global health risk.

-When I say 'other ways' well.. bacteriophage therapy is a new way of treatment. Bacteriophage's are basically tiny viruses that infect bacteria, but are HARMLESS to humans. This is a new area of investigation and so.. watch this space as bacteriophage's could be a new way of tackling this problem

For more info check out June 2009's Microbiologist for information on 'bacteriophage therapy' via the Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM)

Social media and Science

After recently attending the SfAM Summer conference in Dublin it was plain to see that social media was playing a big role in science and communication.

The SfAM Twitter provided information about the conference to those present, and those away, throughout the duration of the conference. This was also done by the 'hashtag' #sfamsc11.
Being in control of SfAM's Twitter (probably the best thing that's ever happened to me!) made me aware of what an impact our tweets about the conference had. The amount of replies, mentions and re-tweets was very encouraging (and an increase in followers is always a plus!).

The 'hashtag' worked really well, with delegates at the conference also tweeting amongst each other and viewing the tweets throughout the conference.
It was also great to see so many new 'tweeters' with several delegates signing up to Twitter and getting involved. It was also encouraging to see a few of the keynote speakers (Alan Reilly and Alec Kyriakides from 'Ireland's Food Safety Authority & Sainsbury's) also promote the importance of social media.

Due to social media, particularly Twitter, being highly successful at this year's conference, it's likely that social media will continue to go from strength to strength within the science community.

How E. coli helps us?

There are hundreds of different strains of E. coli, with the majority being completely harmless to humans. The only ones that have been recognised to cause disease in humans are:
  • E. coli O157:H7
  • E. coli O121
  • E. coli O104:H21
  • and the current E. coli O104:H4 strain causing disease in Germany.

Harmless strains of E. coli colonises the human gut and prevents dangerous organisms from invading and causing disease. If we had no E. coli in our guts then there would be nothing to stop dangerous organisms from invading and causing disease (see image below).

So.. Due to the recent outbreak E. coli has looked like a bit of a ‘bad guy’, but in fact the opposite is true. This bacterium is responsible for keeping our gut healthy and actually preventing us from disease!
Like any family... It’s those 4 bad ones that give E. coli a bad name!

My take on the new variant of the rare E. coli O104 strain

Germany, cucumbers and death are 3 words you wouldn’t particularly associate with one another (particularly the cucumbers and death part).  However, in the news this week regarding the E. coli outbreak in Germany, these 3 seemingly unconnected words have been dominating headlines.
Over 1,500 cases and 18 deaths have been caused by the food poisoning bug so far (
Cucumbers (via

Researchers and public health experts believe that the organism responsible for the E. coli outbreak in Germany is a ‘new form’.
I personally find this kind of exciting! So what does this mean? Basically there are hundreds of different types of E. coli – we call these strains, and group them by their different ‘H’ and ‘O’ proteins (E.g. O157:H7, O104:H4).
This ‘new form’ is thought to be a ‘variant’ from the rare O104:H4 strain. What this means is that this bacterium has the ‘O104’ and ‘H4’ proteins but has different ‘genes’ that have not been seen before in this strain.
These genes include:
1)    It produces a nasty toxin
2)    It can colonise the gut more efficiently
So not only is this variant ‘never been seen before in an outbreak’ (WHO) it is also believed to be ‘highly infectious and toxic’ (Beijing Genomic institute, China). The new variant of the rare O104 strain also looks like it’s acquired an ability to infect large numbers of people.

Not only is it a ‘new form’ it can also cause the deadly complication of ‘haemolytic-uraemic-syndorme’ (HUS) which is a rare complication, usually caused by E. coli O157:H7 strain in young children and the elderly.
HUS is caused by a toxin produced by the bacteria, which binds to and damages the kidney cells (as well as intestinal cells).  This is due to the toxin binding to a specific glycolipid that is found in high concentrations on intestinal and kidney cells. This toxin destroys kidney cells and affects kidney function, resulting in acute renal failure.
The disease also causes a decrease in platelets and microangiopathic haemolytic anaemia (which is destruction of red blood cells due to trauma). Death usually occurs in 3-5% of those who develop HUS.
However, the current outbreak has seen HUS predominantly in young adult females (now I’m worried), which is highly unusual and could be due to the type of food that was originally infected - Dr Dilys Morgan, from the Health Protection Agency (via

The outbreak was thought to have been from infected Spanish cucumbers (hence the cucumbers) however this was later deemed not the source of the outbreak. The source is still unclear however the organism’s gene which enables it to colonise the gut is also likely to enable the organism to attach to salad leaves - Professor Gad Frankel, Imperial College London (via

A new variant of a rare strain is not unexpected. Bacteria are continually evolving and developing resistance to current antibiotics (e.g. MRSA). In order for them to survive they evolve new ways of causing disease, like the current E. coli O104 variant.
Scientists know this and are continually planning and developing new ways to treat and control outbreaks when they occur.

In the mean time: If you don’t want to catch E. coli O104:H4 make sure you wash your fruit and vegetables and wash your hands before eating, as well as after using the toilet. Regularly disinfecting food surfaces is also a good idea.
The most IMPORTANT thing in preventing infection is good hand hygiene and effective disinfection!

Volcanic ash and Bacteria

Volcanic ash can ground planes and, in severe eruptions, it can enter the lungs - but what about the microbe world?

Microorganisms don't fly planes or have lungs, but surely this type of natural disaster must effect them in some way?

A volcanic eruption ash cloud consists mainly of fine rock and glass particles that are quickly expelled into the atmosphere. The ash is then blown via wind systems, and can travel hundreds of miles, until it eventually falls to the ground.

Immediately after the volcanic ash is spewed from the volcano it would be highly doubtful that any bacteria would be able to survive (due to the ash particles being very hot). However, when the ash falls to earth and into the soil it enables the soil to retain more water, thus creating conditions desireable for soil dwelling bacteria to grow. These bacteria replenish the soil's nutrients and therefore make the soil more fertile, with plants and crops benefiting.

However, a few skincare websites that sell volcanic ash/clay state it has antibacterial properties due to it being high in sulphur. This is true due to sulphur having antibacterial properties, however this does not mean grab some volcanic ash from your car windscreen and smear it over yourself - due to only small amounts of ash present it's likely to have little or no effect.

Thanks for reading!

References -

Smallpox - to destroy or not to destroy?

The recent news of the World Health Organization (WHO) deferring the decision to eradicate the smallpox virus until 2014, has begged the question - Why is it still around anyway?

In the 18th-19th centuries, when the disease was rife, there was up to a 30% mortality rate. The disease was characterised by fever, tiredness and a distinctive 'bumpy' rash. The Variola virus that causes Smallpox originated 3,000 years ago in Egypt but was eradicated in 1979 and a highly effective vaccine was developed.
However, some countries (USA and Russia) have stocks of the virus which are used for 'research purposes' and WHO have agreed not to destroy these remaining stocks of viruses...yet.

Countries voted for or against destroying the remaining stocks yesterday with no uniform decision being reached. Iran and 7 other countries were for destroying the virus to prevent accidental release, whereas other countries such as the USA and Russia were against.

Arguments for the eradication of the virus; prevents accidental release, final step in fully eradicating the disease and.. no more smallpox.

However, arguments against eradication include; further research into the virus in case it was to come back or be used as a biological weapon.

But we have a vaccine? - Well if the virus could be slightly genetically modified or mutated, rendering the vaccine useless, then a new vaccine would have to be developed. It's also not possible for anyone to say that they are 100% certain that there are no smallpox strains in the environment.

Personally? We've had these stocks of smallpox for 30 years without the disease being accidentally released, so surely there's no harm in keeping them if they can help research into the disease and other viral diseases?

So, to destroy or not to destroy? (that is the question)
Well the WHO have until 2014 until they have to discuss this topic again...


SUPER Super Bugs

"No action today, no cure tomorrow" - World Health Day 2011

Images via:

We've all seen the pleas in hospitals and GP surgeries regarding antibiotic usage, and yesterday was deemed 'World Health Day' by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The day, including the slogan above, was to make us all aware of antibiotics and the threat of antibiotic resistance on health.

What is an antibiotic?
So, antibiotics. It's a word us scientists and healthcare professionals throw around the place, but what does it exactly mean?
When somebody sees the word 'antibiotic' they often think of 'Penicllin, Flemming and Mould'. Which is correct.. to some extent.
The world of antibiotics began in the early 1900s when Alexander Flemming made a discovery when one of his experiments went wrong (Loads of my experiments go wrong but I'm not as lucky as Flemming to actually discover something 'useful').
What he discovered was that when his plate got contaminated with a certain mould (Penicillium) it inhibited the growth of bacteria.

This is essentially what an antibiotic is - A medicine that destroys/kills 

Or.. the Oxford Dictionary's version - A medicine (such as penicillin or 
                                                                its derivatives) that inhibits the
                                                                growth of or destroys 

The Oxford dictionary uses the term 'microorganisms' which means (any tiny organism including; bacteria, viruses and fungi), this is wrong as ALL of us microbiologists know that an antibiotic can't be given to someone with a viral or fungal infection. So, if I don't say so myself.. I prefer my definition.

What is antibiotic resistance?
This leads us smoothly onto resistance. So, an antibiotic can kill bacteria.. Great! However, unfortunatly for us these clever little creatures have developed 'resistance' to some antibiotics (Which isn't what we or Flemming would have wanted).
Basically, if an antibiotic isn't taken for the full course (to kill off the infection) and is only taken until the individual feels better then this can lead to antibiotic resistance.
This is because, even tho you feel healthy, not all the bacteria would have been killed off (there will be a few remaining that haven't quite died yet). These few remaining bacteria, being the last to be killed off,will be more 'resistant' to that antibiotic and if you're ill again you would need a higher dose or a different antibiotic to treat them.

This is why 'completing the FULL course' is SO IMPORTANT in stopping antimicrobial resistance.

What about colds?
So I've started off by saying you should complete the full course of antibiotics to stop resistance. Unfortunatly taking antibiotics unnecessarily can also lead to resistance.
If you have a viral infection (Cold and Flu) and you take antibiotics (which will have no effect at killing the virus or make you feel better) then this can cause your own 'healthy' bacteria (in your gut etc.) to become resistant to that type of antibiotic.

Now these bacteria are harmless in your gut, in fact you're probably thinking 'Great, Super good bacteria'. Well I'm sorry to burst your bubble but if you were to get a Urinary infection* ladies (I say 'ladies' as it's more common than men) then this could mean the 'super good bacteria' have now become 'super bad bacteria' and a different antibiotic is needed.

* For those that don't know a Urinary infection (UTI, cystitis, bladder infection) is an infection of the urinary tract, that causes an increase and pain when going to the toilet. This is caused simply by bacteria from your lower gut making their way up the urethra (which is shorter in females) to the bladder.

Wash your hands
Ok.. this doesn't stop antibiotic resistance but it stops the spread of an infection, that could be antibiotic resistant.
It makes sense that if you have an infection and don't wash your hands that you are likely to pass it onto someone else via 'hand to hand' transmission.

E.g. If I had MRSA on my hands, and I was to shake a doctor's hands, who would then insert a needle into a patient.  This situation, without hand washing, would almost certainly cause the patient to have MRSA which could cause an infection under the right circumstances.

Therefore washing hands, as simple as it seems is an easy way to prevent the transmission of organisms that might be antibiotic resistant.

So hopefully this has made you aware of how important stopping antibiotic resistance is. 
Organisms like MRSA and the new NDM-1 gene in certain bacteria are rendering antibiotics useless, and new antibiotics aren't readily available.  
This is why everyone needs to help in the fight against antibiotic resistance. It's a serious world health issue that affects us all.


Thanks for reading :-)

New Zealand's earthquake

The News
Today we all woke up to the terrible news that a 6.2 magnitude earthquake hit New Zealand's second-largest city at 23:51 last night. With 65 confirmed deaths so far it's the country's worst natural disaster for 80 years.
My thoughts are with the people of New Zealand at this time.

The Science
So what exactly is a magnitude of 6.2? Due to only minor earthquakes and aftershocks hitting the UK on an average of 200 a year (That sounds like a lot actually!). The majority are minor and are not felt by humans (less than 3.5 magnitude). The last 'large' earthquake in the UK (5.6) was in February 2008 and was felt by most in the UK, but was not large enough to cause damage.  This magnitude of earthquake caused houses to shake and tremors to be felt.
Taken from
 Earthquakes greater than 6.0 cause damage to buildings and the largest recorded measured 9.6 and happened in Chile in 1960. So the 6.2 earthquake was 0.6 larger than the UK earthquake back in 2008. This seems relatively small, but on the Richter scale this is a large difference. The Richter scale measures seismic energy released by the earthquake (Waves of energy released by the breaking of rocks or explosions). The scale is known as a 'base-10 logarithmic' scale, which simply means a 6.0 earthquake is 'ten times' larger than a 5.0 one. 
Therefore, the New Zealand earthquake was 'six times' larger than the 2008 UK earthquake. This explains how a large 5.6 earthquake in the UK causes less damage than the 6.2 one seen in New Zealand.

It's also not just about the magnitude, it also depends on where the epicenter (start) of the earthquake is and whether it is on a main plate boundary in the earth's crust. New Zealand is close to one of these plate boundaries, which is simply a crack in the earth's crust, and these are associated with greater earthquake or volcanic activity. The pacific plate boundary that runs next to New Zealand is also associated with high seismic activity. 
 The UK is located in the centre of one of these 'plates'  and the nearest plate boundary (the mid atlantic ridge) is approximately 900miles away. This explains why the UK's earthquakes are smaller than those in China, Chile, California, New Zealand etc.

Further Info
If you want any more information regarding earthquakes the 'British Geological Survey's website is a good place to look http:
To keep up to date with the New Zealand earthquake:

Thanks for reading, feedback and comments are more than welcome :)

Crossed-eyed opossum

On a totally different note to my past few posts... We've all heard of 'Paul the octopus' and his world cup predicting skillz!

So here's a clip of the new animal sensation in germany! A cross-eyed opossum! (Cute isn't she?)
View clip at

Planck... not plank

Not only is 'Planck' the name of a famous physicist (Max Planck) who was one of the founders of 'Quantum theory'. He also has a constant named after him, the 'Planck constant (h)', which is used in the Planck-Einstein equation (E = hv) to show the relationship between energy and frequency.

Also, the name Planck is also given to the infra-red telescope that was launched in 2009 to look for evidence of how the universe first appeared after the 'big bang'. This is what I'm referring too and was purely using my knowledge of all things 'Planck' at the beginning to make my self 'look good'.

So why am I mentioning it? Yesterday it was reported by the BBC that it detected a 'previously invisible' population of galaxies 12 billion light years away! (So...pretty far away!). This means the picture of the universe has increased and we are seeing more and more 'stuff' in our universe. This however is only a hint at what this telescope can do.. and it's only been up there for just over a year and a half! So who knows what else it will discover in the new future!

The sky (mainly the milky way) as seen by Planck taken from
Also today, Sloan has shown a remarkable image of detail of some distant galaxies in the universe and has already discovered 1/2 billion stars and galaxies. The image is the largest ever coloured image of the whole sky to date, made out of 7 million images - each of125 million pixels. (This would require 500,000 HD televisions to view) Now that's a SUPER HD picture of the universe!!


Swine Flu and SUPER immunity?

Yesterday I came across a report by the BBC saying that;

"People who recover from swine flu may be left with an extraordinary natural ability to fight off flu viruses."

Perhaps 'super immunity' is the wrong phrase, as it's unlikely that this ability is going to make us all super human so we can all fly around the place like superman. However if these findings (Journal of experimental medicine) are true then it could mean, if you recover from swine flu then you could be less likely to get other flu viruses.
H1N1 (swine flu) taken from the 'health protection agency'
This is due to the body producing antibodies against the H1N1 strain (swine flu) that can also kill other flu strains. This is all good but does this all mean we should go and catch swine flu? No. It means this information could be used to create a universal vaccine in the future (what all flu scientists want!).

The study tested 5 antibodies produced in patients who had recovered from swine flu and they were found to have a brilliant fighting effect against all the seasonal H1N1 strains of the last decade, 'Spanish flu' and H5N1 (bird flu). This is great news as these antibodies can protect against seasonal flu strains, the next step for these researchers is to see whether those who got the 'swine flu vaccine' are also 'super immune'.

The number of deaths this winter from flu verified by the Health Protection Agency currently is 50, with 45 of these due to swine flu (the most common strain at present in the community)


Blame it on the a-a-alcohol

New Year
Well a new year has started and no doubt by now everyone's resolutions have been broken! After my New year's celebrations (mainly my granddad buying me drinks) I got the usual hangover symptoms at 2pm and felt awful, vowing never to drink alcohol again! This is of course a prime example of binge drinking, which we are told not to do, however being new year... most of us did it!
My main resolution is to do a half-marathon but giving up a bit of the boozey stuff doesn't sound like too bad of an idea as, according to the diagram below, giving up/reducing your alcohol consumption can help with many other resolutions, including being more active in my case.
Some of you students and part time alcoholics will probably start shouting all the benefits about alcohol and the risks are exaggerated. Well I'm going to explain the risks and benefits so you can make you're own decision... However with VAT rising his year and smoking already banned in public places how long will it be until our beloved pint becomes a thing of the past? 
So... Let's get the facts and the science!

Apparently only 2 in 5 adults understand alcohol units and how many is recommended to be safe to drink per day (drinkaware research 4/1/11).
So.. just to clarify; 
  • Women should not exceed 2-3 units (a 175mL glass of 13% wine) per day
  • Men should not exceed 3-4 units (a pint and a half of 4% beer) per day

In November 2010 the guardian reported that 'alcohol is more harmful than heroin or crack' from a respected article published in the Lancet.
Looking at this title I'd be tempted to say it's a bit exaggerated. However if you read further the cost to society and health damage is quite worrying, particularly with the amount of alcohol drinkers in society compared to that of crack or heroin users.
The study examines the total harm a drug can do within 9 categories (death, mental problems and relationships) Alcohol scored the highest in this study, suggesting that the classification of drugs should be re-investigated.
The BBC also state that "almost 10 million adults drink too much, with potentially lethal health consequences, as well as costing the NHS around £2.7bn a year." This is larger than other drugs combined.
With VAT rising, the cost of a pint has gone up by 6p, however when alcohol can be brought so readily and cheaply it's no wonder it costs the NHS a large deal more than other recreational drugs.

The benefits and Risks? 
So let's start off with the benefits and all those 'red wine is good for the heart' sayings. Like with everything in life, in moderation there are benefits. We all seem to think it can help against heart disease, dementia, make us thin and happier according to some headlines (

 Heart Disease 
Simply; alcohol can be good and bad for the heart, and not just red wine like the old sayings. However, this protection to the heart only works on people aged 45 and over. This is because alcohol increases the ‘good’ cholesterol in our blood; this reduces the amount of fatty deposits in our arteries and the risk of blood clots. This is because certain alcoholic drinks contain antioxidants (red wine) which are responsible for raising the ‘good’ cholesterol.
Increasing your alcohol intake, above the recommended daily limits, causes the risks to outweigh the above benefits. It can cause high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. The anti-clotting abilities, as mentioned above, can also cause bleeds in the brain and haemorrhagic strokes.
180,000 people die of heart and circulatory disease per year in the UK so the media saying that ‘alcohol may reduce the risks’ is dangerous as in excess it can contribute to it. Antioxidants are found in most fruits and can be protective against clots, as well as a healthy diet and exercise.

 20% of alcohol related deaths are caused by cancer. The most common being lung, however breast cancer is a close second. Not many women are aware of the link between alcohol and breast cancer and are unaware of the risks. The increased risk is almost certainly in part because alcohol breaks down into a substance called acetaldehyde, which can cause genetic mutations – a permanent change in the DNA sequence that makes up genes. This mutation can cause the cell to become cancerous. Also alcohol can increase oestrogen levels, which increases breast cell multiplication and therefore increasing the risk of developing breast cancer.

Most people think the liver ‘regenerates’ so it’s ok to have a drink.
However it takes a full 24 hours for your liver to recover from alcohol. Alcohol, once ingested and into the blood stream is firstly transported to the liver. This therefore means that the liver has an extremely high concentration of alcohol subjected to it when heavy drinking. Like most drugs is metabolised by the liver and when you drink excess alcohol this means other vital metabolic reactions are reduced.

Alcohol causes the build up of fat in your liver cells; this is usually reversible but can eventually lead to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is when your normal, healthy liver cells get damaged and die. They are then replaced by scar tissue (that cannot perform liver functions). This leads to end stage liver disease and can be fatal. 
Alcohol is one of the most common causes of liver disease from excessive drinking and has been known to be reported in people as young as 25.

Makes you Slim
“Women who drink wine less likely to gain weight” (BBC news online). Admit it? You'd be tempted to grab that bottle of chardonnay from the fridge? This was taken from an American study that suggests if you drink a 'moderate' amount of alcohol, especially red wine; you’re more likely to not become overweight compared to a non-drinker. 
Brilliant? Think again...This study would have just looked at alcohol as a factor and wouldn't have taken into account the diet and exercise of the individuals. This could make women substitute wine for food to decrease their calorie intake which can lead to a condition known as drunkorexic. This is when the body is not getting vital nutrients and causing serious damage. Also a bottle of wine contains 500 calories, not ideal for a healthy diet full of exercise!
Also men.. Worried about you’re man boobs and beer bellies? Well if you go down to the local pub and have 4 pints, that’s 716 calories! (even more if you have Guiness!)And a high content is fat. Not only that alcohol reduces you’re ability to burn off body fat, contributing to fat deposits in the most unflattering of places.

Longer life 
Quite a few studies have shown that moderate drinkers live longer than teetotallers (up to 6 years in some cases). I have an 89 year old great grandmother who likes her red wine at night and I must say she's the healthiest 89 year old I know!
So is alcohol equivalent to anti-ageing moisturiser? These studies showed that benefits were only there when people drank low levels of alcohol (And most people after having one drink generally have at least another). Also if you drink more then your life expectancy will decrease due to you being at risk from other factors.

So alcohol is probably not the secret to living longer, other things like not smoking, exercise and eating healthy all contribute to living a longer healthier life. Other ‘secrets’ are having 8 hours sleep a night, owning a pet, laughing, being calm and optimistic and having regular sex. I don’t know about you, but these ‘secrets’ definitely sound better than forgetting half my night and being sick all morning!

Alcohol stops you conceiving? This may be hard to believe when you watch ‘Jeremy Kyle’ and see all the alcohol-fuelled pregnancies. However there is good scientific evidence that proves that alcohol reduces fertility in men and women.
In men the increase in alcohol lowers testosterone; this causes the sperm levels to decrease and lower libido (not good at all if you’re trying to conceive).


Most women are concerned about their looks, particularly as they age. We all spend hundreds on anti-ageing moisturisers that are ‘guaranteed’ to make us look younger.

However, after a night drinking your skin looks pale, grey and tired. This is because alcohol causes dehydration. The skin, which is your body’s largest organ also suffers this dehydration, like the brain which gives you a horrendous headache to try and tell you to drink some water! This pale, grey and tired look is not what us women are generally going for, and it counters the effect of anti-ageing moisturisers. Also some men might not be comfortable looking like a zombie either, at least us women can hide the effects with make-up! (un-lucky guys!)

But that’s only for starters. Drinking more than you should over time can have other, much more permanent, detrimental effects on your skin. Rosacea, a skin disorder that starts with a tendency to blush and flush easily and can eventually lead to facial disfigurement, is linked to alcohol.

Alcohol can also cause your face to look bloated and puffy. You might find it bloats your stomach too. And then there's the cellulite; many believe the toxins in alcohol contribute to its build up ( 
Hungover people don't smell too good either; the liver metabolises most alcohol, but five to 10 percent leaves the body straight through your breath, sweat and urine. (Hence morning breath...yum?)
If you didn't manage to take your make-up off, you'll be more prone to spots too. Never mind your glassy, bloodshot eyes. (This is beginning to sound like Frankenstein’s monster!)
This is definitely NOT the look I’m going for! Who agrees?

Makes you Happy
I think we can all say that alcohol makes us happy. It makes us more confident, able to relax and, when enjoying it with a group of friends, can be full of great memories.

However, we’ve probably all been on the receiving end of someone who is not happy (mainly one of us girls crying over a boy). This is because alcohol is a depressant, it suppresses our happy hormone serotonin making us tired and depressed. When drinking too much it can also cause stress, major depression and make us mentally ill (Doesn’t sound too happy now does it). However in moderation it can be great, in excess it can usually end up with someone crying or being argumentative.
The key here to all of the above benefits and risks is 'moderation' as drinking more than this can increase the risks of cancers, liver disease, strokes, depression and even sexual problems.

And no I’m not meaning the footballing kinds. Because; Alcohol makes you say and do things you don’t mean, it leaves you feeling not in control. This can cause dangers, particularly ‘drink driving’ as well as abusing loved ones and other anti-social behaviour.
·         Drink driving
– 6 months imprisonment
– £5000 fine
– Up to 11 points on license
·         Death by drink driving
– 14 years imprisonment
– unlimited fine
– Up to 11 points on license

After looking at all the evidence there’s little to suggest that other than having a ‘good time’ there are few benefits to drinking alcohol.
The risks of excessive drinking, particularly in our ‘binge drinking’ culture are worrying and it’s likely that in the foreseeable future drinking alcohol will too be banned from public places, particularly with the health costs being greater than tobacco and the readily availableness and price of alcohol