What the Heck is
*** Bugs ***

in the


Bugs in the News began as a way to interest my students in Microbiology 500, "Fundamentals of Microbiology." I needed to come up with something which would get the students' attention and at the same time would relate all of the seemingly endless array of scientific material to the "real" world. So, I'd walk into lecture, stand at the front of the room and yell, "Bugs in the News!" The yelling worked... everyone would become quiet and focused on me - apparently all eagerly awaiting the news flash... even though the first time I did this, there was no one in the room that had any idea what the hell I was doing... that's right - I didn't either...

Irrespective of the students' opinions, being of sound mind at the time, I wanted to give two examples of recent advances in molecular biology - one which led to an important ethical question - and one which led to unbounded joy. For the first example, I proceeded to explain how a gene within a particular bacterium was probably responsible for millions of dollars of frost damage to potato plants (am I spelling potato correctly? - Dan Quayle, where are you? - in Idahoe? Just kidding, DAN...) and wasn't there ANYONE in the room that cared about this most pressing issue? Since the only sound in the room was my labored breathing... apparently not. I told them that this gene encoded information for synthesis of a protein which bonded with water and acted as a crystallization center. When these bacteria infected the potato plant, the protein was sent outside of the bacterial cell - where any water present, even though a couple of degrees above the freezing-point of water (32-degrees F), would begin to freeze. In the absence of this protein, the water would not freeze at these temperatures - necessary to stay at 32F or below... - so - a kind of advantage to the bacterium. As the ice crystals formed (you know that water gets bigger when it freezes), the crystals would rupture the leaf cells, and as the day warmed, the cells would leak their contents and die - but - the bacteria would now have a rich nutrient source. Eventually of course, the potato plant would suffer permanent frost damage, and the whole plant would die. Scientists had removed this gene and showed that plants infected with the gene-less bacteria were not harmed for several weeks past the normal frost season. Now, in order to help potato farmers make more money, would it be ethical to place these genetically-altered bacteria into the wild? For the second example, I told them about the awful times during Isabel Peron's regime in Argentina, and the stealing of children by her regime from parents - and no one knew to whom the children were given - or sold. I told them about how molecular biology research led to knowledge which allowed these children to be re-united with their biological families - a team of scientists from the US examined almost every single child in Argentina and every mother who had had a child taken, by examination of mitochondria (the little things inside all cells except bacteria which make all of the energy substance ATP) and the use of mitochondrial DNA sequences to match offspring with mothers... No matter whether a person is male or female, ALL mitochondria in EVERY cell in EVERY person's body come from the mother, alone. Your cells' mitochondria go back to your great-great-great-great-great...etc, grandmother on your mother's side of the family... ain't that somethin'? Anyway, by comparing the DNA, the matches were made, and many sad years were overcome as the now older children were returned to their parents.

I continued to scour the world - well, actually I mostly scoured the top of my desk - for issues similar to those mentioned above which dealt with all kinds of microorganisms, the immune system, antibiotics, bacterial and viral diseases, molecular biology, the Ice Man - I loved that discovery - and other things I found interesting to yell about in my Bugs in the News session. The students seemed to enjoy the stories - or the yelling part at least - and I soon decided that this kind of information was as useful to me as it perhaps was to the students - I learn a lot trying to think of a way to explain something - and maybe, just maybe, the information might also be fun to know about by pretty much anyone - student or not....

All life on this planet is dependent upon all other life on this planet. Too, there are many, many instances in our daily lives in which we encounter all kinds of science - all kinds - and the quality of our life both now and in the future in many cases depends upon someone's knowledge of science things. We are often literally at the mercy of someone who "knows best" - with respect to advice on how much fat to eat, how many vitamins to take, whether or not to recieve a vaccination, how much and what kind of water to drink, whether to drink whole milk, skim milk, some milk, no milk, whether to eat fish, some fish, no fish, shellfish, whether to cook it, not necessary to cook it, whether to wash it, whether it is ok to take ibuprofen (Advil - Registered Trademark) and aspirin at the same time, not knowing whether a virus infection is the same or different than a bacterial infection - whoa! - is enough to drive a person into a cave somewhere to live with bats.

Further, there are many basic personal health and ethical issues which arise daily concerning the use of products of molecular biology to better our lives - we desperately need informed folks to carefully ponder these issues - people who do not vote or make decisions on these issues from an ignorant or irrational fear-filled point of view, but instead from a reasonably knowledgeable position. We need to feel confident enough to comfortably ask our physician or pharmacist exactly why we are being told to take something (a prescription), or to receive a vaccination for something we have a hard time even pronouncing, much less spelling or understanding. This confidence comes from knowledge of true, factual information.

I tell my students that Science is not impossible to grasp - it is nothing to be afraid of - it is not boring - it is not weird - it is as wondrous as life itself. And the biological sciences - well - they deal only with life... how life exists in all its glory among millions of different forms on this good old earth. As a society we now, especially, need an understanding of some basic science. So, I began a Page on science things called Bugs in the News. My goal was to present information in such a way as to make the information understandable - a kind of Zideco science - you may not understand all of the words, or chord progressions, but you just can't help keeping time to the music......

Book: Don't Touch That Doorknob!

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