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Archive for the ‘Deep Thoughts’ Category

Viruses May Not Be So Bad After All

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 07-22-2014

In contrast to their negative reputation as disease causing agents, some viruses can perform crucial biological and evolutionary functions that help to shape the world we live in today, according to a new report by the American Academy of Microbiology.

“Viruses participate in essential Earth processes and influence all life forms on the planet, from contributing to biogeochemical cycles, shaping the atmospheric composition, and driving major speciation events,” states Marilyn Roossinck of Pennsylvania State University, a member of the steering committee that helped to organize the colloquium.

The report, ‘Viruses Throughout Life & Time: Friends, Foes, Change Agents,’ is based on the deliberation of a group of scientific experts who gathered for two days in San Francisco, CA in July 2013 to answer a series of questions regarding the variety of roles that viruses play in the natural world.

“The inspiration for holding the colloquium was that recent metagenomics studies of viruses have indicated we know very little about the real world of viruses. Almost all published research is about the viruses that cause disease in humans and their domesticated plants and animals. This certainly represents only a very small fraction of the viruses that really exist,” says Roossinck. “It is very important to understand the real world of viruses, as this can inform our basic understanding of life and its origins, as well as major earth phenomena like carbon cycling.”

Beyond their pathogenic impact, the report examines in depth the size of the virosphere, the origin of viruses, the overlooked biological and microbial ecological role of viruses, and how these live forms have contributed to evolution. Additional highlights from the report explain how some viruses are commensal organisms or symbionts, their functioning in microbial communities, and their role in maintaining the biosphere. The array of responsibilities taken on by viruses is due to their incredible sequence diversity and genomic plasticity, referred to as “viral dark matter”.

The report concludes by stimulating the readers to think about key questions: “What if viruses had never existed on Earth? Would life have evolved quite differently”? Continued viral research will help to answer these enticing questions.

Thank you to the American Society of Microbiology for contributing this story.

What Humans Can Learn from Semi-Intelligent Slime

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 07-21-2014

You Can’t Publish THAT!

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 07-10-2014

This is great but I can’t believe that it actually got published!

Smallpox Anyone?

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 07-09-2014

First it was Anthrax and now it’s Smallpox!!! Last month, we told you about the CDC’s report that as many as 75 CDC scientists may have been exposed to Anthrax when a vial containing the deadly bacteria was accidentally transferred to a low level bio-hazard lab that was ill equipped to handle the stuff. Now, Science Insider is reporting that six vials of smallpox were found by an FDA scientist who was cleaning out his freezer! Apparently, the 60 something year old vials were stuffed in the back of this lab’s freezer or fridge in a poorly labeled cardboard box.

Folks, this is why you don’t store you lunch in the same fridge that you store your lab reagents. Imagine the headlines had the vials been mistaken for savory condiments. Scientist contracts smallpox while accidentally spreading it on his favorite sandwich.

It is also another reason not to buy cheap Sharpie pens. Vials must be labeled clearly and the label must last. Labeling your samples in a code that nobody understands is a surefire way to cause major pandemonium amongst current and future lab-mates. And if the label rubs off, what good was it to begin with? I bet that tens of hands (gloved and ungloved) have touched these poorly-labeled vials of smallpox over the decades.

The article in Science discusses the dangerous possibility that these vials could have fallen into the hands of terrorists and used as bio-weapons. But, as scientists, we should be more worried that the vials could have fallen on anybody’s hands and contaminated the entire lab! This is scary stuff.

To read the article in Science Insider visit Six vials of smallpox discovered in U.S. lab

Is Working at the Bench Putting Your Health at Risk?

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 06-23-2014

Let me start by saying that I don’t mean to be sensationalist. I really don’t. But current events really have my blood boiling. All of us, and I mean each and every one of us that works at the bench, have taken tons of courses in lab safety and are probably sick and tired of the annual boreathon that is called safety training day (or whatever it is called in your institution). No, I don’t wear open-toed sandals in the lab. I don’t pipette by mouth. I file each and every MSDS sheet in our safety binder when the materials arrive (OK…I don’t really do this one). So yeah, I think that I am a pretty safe guy. And so are most of the people that I work with. But WHAT THE HECK??? ANTHRAX???

If you haven’t heard the news, last Thursday, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a statement informing the public that as many as 75 scientists may have been exposed to live Anthrax while working in their Atlanta facility. 75 scientists! Anthrax! Just the sound of it makes my skin crawl. The lab can often be monotonous and boring, but surely this isn’t the way anyone wants to break up the monotony of bench work. Imagine the scenario. You wake up one morning, pack your lunch, kiss your wife and kids goodbye and head off to work. You figure that you’ve got a good 8 or 9 hours ahead of you in the lab and then its back home. Only nope. Someone has something else planned for you. You are about to be exposed to anthrax.

While the exposure was not intentional, (staff in a high-level biosecurity lab working with the live virus forgot to inactivate it before passing it on to colleagues who were untrained in handling of the bacteria), the carelessness and negligence exhibited by the scientific staff at the CDC is just as worrisome. However, do you think that these kind of mishaps can only occur at high-level biosecurity facilities? I think not.

Although the use of radioisotopes is not as common as it used to be, I remember how, as a graduate student, neighboring labs were shut down when they failed to pass the radioactivity officer inspection. Apparently, swipe tests showed that hot stuff was all over the place! Unsuspecting passersby were unintentionally exposed to huge levels of beta particle radiation.

And what about the widespread use of ethidium bromide for detecting DNA in gels? Sure, the person handling the stained gel was wearing gloves, but did he bother taking off the gloves when touching the door handle to the dark room or gel doc imager? Did he unintentionally contaminate the common computer keyboard? The list goes on and on.

So while I don’t want to be a sensationalist and blow things out of proportion, I do believe that the occupational hazards associated with lab work are probably higher than your average desk job worker. I would be interested in seeing a long-term, epidemiological study of morbidity and mortality rates among those who worked in a research lab for a significant period of time.

Any takers?