I spent a delightful and informative 20 weeks this year 'teaching' Fermentation and Food Microbiology aka F&F. I say 'teaching' because I was learning at least as much as the students, probably more: I suspect I'd get a pretty good mark on the exams although I was only running one of the 3 lab sections. The point of the course is to get a proper grounding in the bacteria and fungi which either make our food or spoil it according to rather idiosyncratic ideas about what is and is not edible.
Q. Would any properly fastidious person eat Cashel-blue cheese?
A. Not if they put a bit under the microscope!
A chunk of the course dealt with LABs Lactic Acid Bacteria - gram-positive, catalase-negative and are essential to the production of (alphabetically) beer, buttermilk, cheese, cider, cocoa, crème fraîche, kefir, kimchi, koumiss, pickles, quark, sauerkraut, silage, sourdough, wine, yogurt. Hard to live well without them, eh?
While he was working is Giessen as a young chap he noted a single cell in a flatworm engulfing and digesting a foreign particle. It was an inspiring revelation for him that informed a large part of his later research - the part that led to him sharing the 1908 Phys/Med Nobel Prize. In Messina several years later, working on microscopic starfish larvae, he again noted phagocytosis: he famously annoyed his experimental subjects by poking them with rose-thorns and watched as specific starfish cells mobilised to deal with the invasion. He realised that this must be the purpose of our own white blood cells. He wasn't by any means the first to notice this, but everyone else thought of the mobilisation of WBCs as the explanation of how disease and septicaemia rapidly gets propagated through the body. As an early reader of, and inspired by, Darwin's Origin of Species, he knew that this was a crap, partial, inadequate explanation of the proximate phenomenon without thinking further to the ultimate, evolutionary purpose of such a widespread phenomenon. It's a bit like Lavoisier turning the theory of phlogiston on its head to show what actually happened when things burn.
Pasteur, for example, greeted the Metchnikoff theories with skepticism, as did Behring (Nobel Prize for Phys/Med in 1901) . But it turned out that, according to today's truth, Metchnikoff was correct. He was probably also correct about the importance of the intestinal microflora in our health and happiness. Metchnikoff died in 1916, and his ideas about chugging down a few billion LABs for breakfast were and are looked at as cranky and obsessive. But one thing is for sure, you've got to take a lot of bacteria to make a difference to the intestinome, which is composed of 200 trillion cells in perhaps 10,000 different species. A few years ago, Danone, started to market a teeny-tiny bottle of yoghurt as Actimel at an inflated price because it contained some "Lactobacillus casei Defensis or Immunitas" whoowah! - must be good for you it's called goodforyouitas. Most of the bugs in Actimel are Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus salivarius = yoghurt.
There's another interesting immuno-story in the blogosphere (Kottke for example) this week picking up from a report in WashPost. It's only a sample of one. Worse than that, it's a sample of two with a success rate of 50% but Stacy Erholtz appears to have been cured of a fearsome metastasizing myeloma cancer. One of the human aspects of the story is that Ezholz metastases included a gross tumour on her forehead that was pushing both outwards and into her brain. Her kids had christened this maternal appendage "Eric". The medicos at the Mayo Clinic elected, as a last ditch push, to inject Erholz with 100 billion units of measles virus rather than using them to innoculate 10 million children against this serious childhood illness. They were probably close to their sell-by-date so would have been flushed anyway. That's a lot of virus and they thought it was going to take an hour to infuse it all. Within a few minutes of the start of treatment, Ezholz reported a splitting headache and the medicos must have worried that something Northwick was about to occur but their patient was damned if they didn't persist, so they did. An hour after infusion finished, her temperature was up to gasket-blowing, and she was shaking and vomiting. It was too late to do anything then except wrap up the patient and wait. Two days later it was clear that Evan was shrinking away and over the next few weeks the measles virus hunted out and mopped up all the tumour cells. Makes you think about interventions in the delicate balance between the microbes and the immune system: C.diff; Augmentin; Tamiflu etc etc.
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