Issues Magazine

Articles about microbes

A Bug’s Life

By Bonnie Laverock

From health to life on Earth as we know it, our relationship with microbes is far more complex than you might think.

What Is a Microbe?

In the 21st century, we grow up knowing that there are microbes all around us, portrayed as an invisible enemy ready to attack. We know we need to wash our hands, to clean the spaces around us, to cook our meat properly – or risk serious illness. We also know that there are such things as “friendly bacteria” in our guts that help us to digest our food properly.

Microbes Making Their Mark in Drug Discovery

By Siouxsie Wiles

Living things that glow in the dark are showing great potential in the fight against drug-resistant tuberculosis.

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by how nasty microbes cause disease. How can something as tiny as a bacterium or virus kill something as complicated as us?

And kill us they do. It turns out that about one of every three people who die worldwide are killed by infectious microbes. That’s a staggering 14 million people each year. Even more frightening is the fact that, through the process of evolution, many microbes are becoming resistant to what treatments we do have.

Rotting to the Crown: How a Local Fungus Is Controlling an Introduced Weed

By David Officer

A fungus is providing a biological alternative to chemical methods for weed control.

Who doesn’t like a good movie mystery? You cheer for the good guys and are relieved when the bad ones get their comeuppance.

But who are the good guys and who are the bad? Who do you trust and who do you mistrust? In real life, as at the movies, the more we learn the more we realise we need to know!

Life without antibiotics – the rise and rise of superbugs

By Matthew Cooper

Heralded as a “miracle of modern medicine” when they were first discovered, antibiotics have been overused for so long that most have become ineffective.

Stories about superbugs (bacteria resistant to antibiotics) now feature regularly in the news. This morning it’s about babies in a Melbourne hospital testing positive for a bacteria that antibiotics can’t beat.

Superbug Resistance to Antimicrobial Nanosilver

A group of widely-occurring bacteria has been able to overcome the antimicrobial activity of nanosilver upon prolonged exposure.

We are and always have been at constant war against pathogens, not only in extreme situations such as epidemics but also on a daily basis. Along the way we have encountered a vast number of antimicrobial agents, each with unique target microorganisms and potency. These antimicrobials range from natural forms of disinfectant, such as moulds and plant extracts, to more sophisticated engineered chemicals including antiviral drugs.

Immunisation: Measles, Mumps & Misinformation

By Loretta Marron

“Bring back the pox! Bring back polio! Bring back whooping cough, mumps and measles! Your children will be stronger if they contract disease,” according to a book recently pulled from Australia’s biggest online book store.

Written as a children’s bedtime story, Melanie’s Marvellous Measles is a discussion between a mother and her daughter after a friend contracts measles. The mother wants her to catch the disease so that she can build up her “immune systems naturally”. So should we vaccinate our children?

Australian Medical Association President, Dr Steve Hambleton, has witnessed first-hand the terror felt by parents of children extremely ill with this disease, and was horrified by the book. He recommended its withdrawal from sale.

Vets Versus Pets: Methicillin Resistance in Animals and Their Doctors

By Darren Trott, David Jordan, Mary Barton, Sam Abraham & Mitchell Groves

Humans and animals intimately sharing the same environment will inevitably be exposed to each other’s microbiota. When one of those organisms is a drug-resistant pathogen, disease prevention gets complex.

Staphylococcus aureus is responsible for a wide range of opportunistic infections in both humans and animals. In humans, infections with methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA), which first appeared in the 1960s, have traditionally been acquired in hospital.

Sneezing Leads To Wheezing: Microbes Important in Asthma

By Christiana Willenborg & Sacha Stelzer-Braid

Asthma symptoms can worsen for a range of environmental and occupational reasons. At least half of all asthma exacerbations are caused by respiratory viruses, but there are microbiological causes too.

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition of the airways. It is often difficult to diagnose as the symptoms (wheeze, difficulty breathing) are common to other illnesses such as respiratory tract infections and obesity. “Viral-induced wheeze” and cough are common in young children with respiratory infections, but is not necessarily caused by asthma.

Archaea: Some Extreme Microbes

By Steven Semiatin

The unusual properties and abilities of some Archaea have earned them the title of “extremophile”, and scientists are still working to understand them.

Surely no organism can survive, even flourish, in boiling water or liquids ten times the salinity of seawater, or live in the deep coldness of the ocean floor under tremendous pressures. And a microbe that loves to eat oil accidently leaked by massive oil tankers must be science fiction.

Wrong – some microbes within a classification called Archaea (ar-kay-ah) have evolved adaptations to extreme environments, leading scientists to speculate that such microbes might be able to survive on or in other planets or moons in our solar system.

Resistance to Antibiotics

By Roy Robins Browne

Many of us take antibiotics for granted, but rising bacterial resistance is having major health consequences.

The World Health Organization has declared resistance to antibiotics to be one of the greatest threats to human health. This strong statement raises several questions.

  • What is antibiotic resistance, and why is it a threat to health?
  • Why does antibiotic resistance occur?
  • What can we do about it?

Microbial Mining

By Carla Zammit

Microbes can operate in the toughest conditions on Earth, including among the acids and heavy metals of the mining industry.

The first microorganisms appeared on Earth 3.7 billion years ago at a time when there was no free oxygen and the atmosphere was composed of methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia and hydrogen. They have since evolved to inhabit almost all parts of the globe, developing many systems to deal with life at the extremes.

Some microorganisms can grow in strongly acidic conditions, withstand levels of heavy metals lethal to most other life forms, live in temperatures above the boiling point of water and withstand radiation levels much greater than we can tolerate.

Navel gazing: healthy gut bacteria can help you stress less

By Chelsie Elise Rohrscheib

New evidence indicates that the microbial community in our gut has a huge effect on brain function.

Striking new evidence indicates that the gut microbiome, the ecological community of microorganisms that share our body, has a huge effect on brain function – much larger than we thought.

It has long been established that our gut acts as a second nervous system and is capable of functioning without input from the brain.

Learning from Forgotten Epidemics

By Ian Townsend

One of the premises of pandemic plans is that the public will cooperate with authorities. How well we cooperate with quarantine and rationing, queuing at surgeries and being ordered to stay at home will determine how well the country copes.

A panic had set in and people from the infected area were hurrying to be inoculated. The crush was dreadful and the crowd fought and struggled. [When injected] … the men shouted and swore and they charged out like mad bulls. The women didn’t scream, [but] hung about on one another’s necks and wept softly, wondering if they were going to die. – The Bulletin, March 31, 1900

How Microbes Can Help Feed the World

By Ann Reid & Shannon E. Greene

Understanding the partnerships between microbes and plants could help to solve the global food crisis.

Feeding a global population projected to reach nine billion people by 2050 is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. Gains from the Green Revolution have levelled off, there is a limited supply of arable land and clean water, and inputs like fertilisers and pesticides are both economically and environmentally costly. Intensifying current agricultural approaches is simply not a sustainable solution to the problem of food security; new approaches are desperately needed.

Study links intestinal bacteria to rheumatoid arthritis

Bacterial disturbances in the gut may play a role in autoimmune attacks on the joints, pointing the way to novel treatments and diagnostics

Researchers have linked a species of intestinal bacteria known as Prevotella copri to the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, the first demonstration in humans that the chronic inflammatory joint disease may be mediated in part by specific intestinal bacteria. The new findings by laboratory scientists and clinical researchers in rheumatology at NYU School of Medicine add to the growing evidence that the trillions of microbes in our body play an important role in regulating our health.

Sexually Transmissible Infections and Socially Tragic Insurgents

By Cheryl Power

The stigma and sometimes silent nature of sexually transmissible infections are challenges to reducing the impact of this group of diseases.

Sexually transmissible infections (STIs) have been around for centuries. Hippocrates described the curse of genital herpes around 400 BC, and gonorrhoea, almost certainly known in mediaeval times, was colourfully described as the “perilous infirmity of burning” in a decree passed by the English Parliament in the 17th century.

Superbug Resistance to Antimicrobial Nanosilver

A group of widely-occurring bacteria has been able to overcome the antimicrobial activity of nanosilver upon prolonged exposure.

We are and always have been at constant war against pathogens, not only in extreme situations such as epidemics but also on a daily basis. Along the way we have encountered a vast number of antimicrobial agents, each with unique target microorganisms and potency. These antimicrobials range from natural forms of disinfectant, such as moulds and plant extracts, to more sophisticated engineered chemicals including antiviral drugs.

Aussie Mozzies Not Dangerous? Let’s Swat That Myth!

By travelvax.com

Australians tend to think of our “home-grown” mosquitoes as annoying rather than dangerous. That’s a mistake, according to one of Australia’s best-known mosquito experts, Dr Cameron Webb, an entomologist based at the University of Sydney.

It’s true that dengue fever, arguably our best-known mosquito-borne virus, is now well-established in Queensland’s tropical Far North. But dengue owes its higher national profile less to locally transmitted infections and more to the fact that many of the 1238 cases recorded by Aussies this year are holiday mementos, mainly from Indonesia.

Gut harmony: Why the right mix of microbes is important to our health

By Dyani Lewis

University of Melbourne

In this podcast, microbial ecologist Prof Rob Knight explains why we need the millions of microbes that make a home in and on our bodies.

DYANI LEWIS

Editorial

By Sally Woollett

Editor, Issues

An overview of what's in this edition of Issues.

There are more of their cells in a teaspoon of intestinal contents than people who have ever lived, and we carry them around without even thinking about it – unless they make us sick. This is why bacteria have such a bad reputation. We only tend to notice them when they cause illness. We forget (or don’t know) about the many essential jobs they do.