This very long letter is awesome and I suggest you read the whole thing, but my favorite part is this center bit, which is one of the better explanations I’ve ever heard for why spending on seemingly esoteric scientific research matters.
Before trying to describe in more detail how our space program is contributing to the solution of our Earthly problems, I would like to relate briefly a supposedly true story, which may help support the argument.
About 400 years ago, there lived a count in a small town in Germany. He was one of the benign counts, and he gave a large part of his income to the poor in his town. This was much appreciated, because poverty was abundant during medieval times, and there were epidemics of the plague which ravaged the country frequently. One day, the count met a strange man. He had a workbench and little laboratory in his house, and he labored hard during the daytime so that he could afford a few hours every evening to work in his laboratory. He ground small lenses from pieces of glass; he mounted the lenses in tubes, and he used these gadgets to look at very small objects. The count was particularly fascinated by the tiny creatures that could be observed with the strong magnification, and which he had never seen before. He invited the man to move with his laboratory to the castle, to become a member of the count’s household, and to devote henceforth all his time to the development and perfection of his optical gadgets as a special employee of the count.
The townspeople, however, became angry when they realized that the count was wasting his money, as they thought, on a stunt without purpose. “We are suffering from this plague,” they said, “while he is paying that man for a useless hobby!” But the count remained firm. “I give you as much as I can afford,” he said, “but I will also support this man and his work, because I know that someday something will come out of it!”
Indeed, something very good came out of this work, and also out of similar work done by others at other places: the microscope. It is well known that the microscope has contributed more than any other invention to the progress of medicine, and that the elimination of the plague and many other contagious diseases from most parts of the world is largely a result of studies which the microscope made possible.
The count, by retaining some of his spending money for research and discovery, contributed far more to the relief of human suffering than he could have contributed by giving all he could possibly spare to his plague-ridden community.
C. jejuni and C. coli are microaerophilic bacteria that have a characteristic corkscrew shape. This false-color electron-microscope image shows Campylobacter cells clumping together.
Listeria monocytogenes, a rod-shaped bacterium, is one of the world’s deadliest foodborne pathogens. In this image, the bacteria (shown in red) are traveling around a cell using their bright actin rockets.
More commonly known as human herpesvirus 5 or HCMV, cytomegalovirus is the most frequently transmitted intrauterine infection. This multicolor immunofluorescence image shows human endothelial cells being infected by cytomegalovirus.
4. Streptococcus pyogenes
Streptococcus pyogenes, a spherical bacteria that typically grows in long chains, can cause minor infections like mpetigo to potentially deadly diseases like streptococcal toxic shock syndrome. In this image, human neutrophils—white blood cells that are one of the body’s first lines of defense—are engulfing S. pyogenes cells through a process known as phagocytosis.
Research project on gastrointestinal bacteria, open to the public for a fee. Send in a stool sample and some cash and they’ll examine your gut flora. You’ll then be able to see the results of your data and interact with others with similar microbial profiles to “directly share experiences, remedies, health and diet tips.” Looks a little nutty, but their work has been published in Nature.
Jonathan Coulton - Bacteria
I love this track, built out of audio snippets stripped from an old KFC training filmstrip.
The full audio to the filmstrip used to be hosted online as part of April Winchell’s repository of weird music and found audio, but I guess she killed it to make room for full-time Regretsying. Luckily, somebody else has made sure it lives on.
I’ve been lobbying for this to be the intro/outro music for Don and Ben’s excellent Food Safety Talk podcast. All that’s in the way is a complicated bureaucracy surrounding music licensing… oh, and convincing them, of course.
For people who drink untreated well water, sometimes the only thing that stands between them and pathogenic bacteria is soil. New research shows that high concentrations of phosphate, a key ingredient in fertilizer, help a deadly strain of Escherichia coli to slip through the dirt (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI:10.1021/es201132s). The result is a potentially greater risk of groundwater contamination.
On rural fields, cow manure is a major source of E. coli O157:H7, a strain that can trigger internal bleeding and kidney damage when people ingest it. Each year, this pathogen causes about 73,000 illnesses and 60 deaths in the U.S., says Jin Li, an environmental engineer at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Contaminated drinking water is the culprit in about 15% of those infections.
Interesting, but to me it raises more questions than answers. I fully admit that I’m not a microbiologist or an expert in organic chemistry or someone who knows as much about farming as he should, but when I think about what this article means for the real world, I have some doubts.
The paper (which I skimmed) connects the dots by saying that applying cow manure to fields increases risk of O157 in the soil, and that applying commercial fertilizers rich in phosphates increases risk of transporting O157 through the soil to groundwater. But I wonder: how many farmers out there are applying untreated manure AND commercial fertilizers?
Put another way: organic farmers seem much more likely to apply manure or manure-based compost to fields than commercial farmers, yet commercial farmers are the only ones adding synthetic phosphate-based fertilizers to their fields. That is, these are two different farmers. Since the whole point of synthetic fertilizers is to do what manure does - add nitrogen, among other things - I don’t think there are many farmers applying both commercial fertilizers and untreated manure. But this is just my gut feeling and maybe I’m way wrong. If anything, it’s just one more reason why using untreated manure is risky, but we knew that already.
Regardless, isn’t cow manure much more likely to contaminate groundwater in a more direct manner, through rain runoff from feedlots or wherever into streams and rivers, rather than through the complicated process involved here, where someone is collecting manure, possibly treating it, adding it to fields, then adding fertilizers, then irrigating so inefficiently that the soil is fully saturated? This just doesn’t seem like a particularly relevant pathway to me.
Another thing this raises to me, though it’s more philosophical, is that if you view this from a food safety standpoint, if phosphates increase risk to groundwater by transporting O157 out of the soil, don’t they correspondingly reduce risk to the vegetables grown in that soil? Again, this probably isn’t relevant in the real world, because I think the issue of uptake of O157 through root systems is largely overblown, but it’s an interesting aside.
To be clear, I’m not saying this isn’t good science or even that it’s not relevant. It might be very good work and indeed, might be very important for understanding non-point pollution issues. But I think the specific example invoked in the press release does a bit of a disservice by pushing it too far. Believe me, I sympathize. Someone might even criticize press releases related to my own work for the same reason, to which I would say, with puppy dog eyes: Yes, I know.