The Bony-Eared Assfish, Filthy Hairbrushes, and the Poop Emoji — 2016 What a Year!
A look back at some of uBiome’s most popular 2016 posts.
Happy New Year! As we look toward 2017, we thought it would be fun to look back at some of our most favorited posts from 2016. We covered a lot of ground and, we hope, provided a few chuckles along the way. Here’s your chance to relive some of 2016’s highlights.
We began the year with a look at the microorganisms that can be found up our noses, in the process revealing that a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine study had suggested that women have about half as many bacteria in their noses as men.
Both men’s and women’s nasal and oral plumbing are the same, of course. The nose and mouth are both connected to the throat, which is why you’re able to swallow mucus, and as our post explained, you do this in prodigious quantities. In fact a healthy adult swallows over a litre of mucus every day, much more than enough to fill a bathtub every year.
Some of us think of nasal mucus as nasty stuff, but it’s actually incredibly useful — acting as a kind of lubricant and moistener. Snot also acts a bit like flypaper, trapping dust and bacteria before they get into the body. Moreover it contains antibodies that can help your body recognize invading viruses and bacteria, and enzymes which kill these unwanted guests.
We marked Valentine’s Day with a collection of factoids combining love and bacteria. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of a romantic celebration, but you know us. Any excuse to get microbial.
We noted, for example, Dutch researchers who persuaded heterosexual partners to share an intimate kiss, then invited the females to drink a probiotic yogurt drink and lock lips and tongues with their paramours for a second time. This passionate procedure helped the scientists estimate the number of bacteria transferred in a 10-second kiss. About 80 million was their conclusion.
And while we’re on the subject of smooching, we revealed that a study of shared oral microbiomes showed that couples with the most similar salivary microbes were those who kissed at least nine times a day; bad news for Brits after a survey showed that 20% of UK couples kiss just once a week.
After the previous month’s focus on love, maybe it wasn’t altogether surprising that one of our March posts was about reproduction. Bacterial reproduction, of course. We learned, for example, that given the right conditions, a single E. coli bacterium becomes two every 30 minutes, so growth follows a geometric progression, doubling every half hour.
If we disregard the fact that its support system would be depleted long before 36 hours were up, the mass of E. coli that would be produced from a single bacterium in a day and a half would weigh the same as around 600 male African elephants.
In April, we reported on an unfortunately-named creature: the Bony-Eared Assfish. Sadly, not only does it have to suffer the indignity of its name, this deep sea fish also has the smallest brain to body weight of all known vertebrates.
It prompted us to wonder if bacteria have brains. They don’t, but this doesn’t stop them from behaving in what can seem like intelligent ways. For example, bacteria can move toward food or away from pathogens that could hurt them. This is down to receptors on the surface of a bacterial cell, which pick up signals from external chemicals. When the receptors on one side of the cell pick up more signals than those on the other, the microbe can “decide” to either move in that direction – if it’s food – or scurry off the other way if it’s something toxic.
May found us engaging in some spring cleaning, as we investigated connections between the vacuum cleaner and – yes, you guessed it – bacteria.
We revealed that Australian and Canadian studies have suggested that vacuum cleaners can be powerful spreaders of bacteria, sucking up bacteria, then immediately squirting them out again in their exhaust fumes, liberally distributing the microbes. Surprisingly, even some of the cleaners fitted with so-called High-Efficiency Particulate Air filters released only slightly lower levels of dust and bacteria.
We were happy to give the last word on vacuum cleaners to comedian Tim Vine, who won an award for the funniest joke at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “I’ve decided to sell my Hoover,” he said. “Well, it was just gathering dust.”
We recognized that June is the month when the greatest number of Americans travel overseas, many heading off on vacation, perhaps ferrying their microbiomes with them as they jet off all over the world.
In 2014, NBC’s Today show tested cross-country commercial flights for bacteria. Nine out of thirteen of their samples contained what they say were harmful bacteria, and apparently the dirtiest locations they found on planes were tray tables. A former flight attendant said that short turnaround times can mean planes don’t always get thoroughly cleaned. She recommended carefully checking the seat-back pocket before reaching inside, because some passengers will use the air-sickness bag and then return it without telling anyone. Eeuugh.
Our Independence Day special issue shone a light on some Fourth of July bacteria connections, including the sobering fact that it was on this day in 1976 (the bicentennial) that a new disease saw the light of day. Members of the American Legion gathered at a hotel in Philadelphia to commemorate the day. Four attending veterans died from suspected pneumonia, the beginning of an unfortunate epidemic in which 182 members of the Legion were diagnosed, and 29 fatalities were reported.
The sickness was the result of a new infectious disease, which six months later was identified as being caused by a bacterium that had thrived and multiplied in the hotel’s air-conditioning system. In recognition of those who had first succumbed to it, the perpetrator was named Legionella pneumophila, and the condition was forever to be known as Legionnaires’ disease.
August saw us, uh, get our hands dirty with a look at the Bristol Stool Scale, which classifies the consistency of human feces into seven categories which, in the children’s version are labeled rabbit droppings, bunch of grapes, corn cob, sausage, chicken nuggets, porridge, and gravy.
Enterprising online businesses sell Bristol Stool Scale T-shirts and mugs. And some home bakers even rustle up chocolate cake versions of the scale, complete with seven appropriately-shaped stools on top, bringing a whole new meaning to the Chocolate Log.
We had a bit of a space theme going on in September, when we learned about a brilliant UC Davis-based citizen science initiative, Project MECCURI, which asked members of the public to collect environmental microbial samples – mainly from sporting and other public events – then had them sent up to the International Space Station to see how they’d grow in lower gravity conditions.
In the process, a volunteer found a previously completely undiscovered bacterial species – Porphyrobacter mercurialis – which was named after the project itself. It wasn’t exactly found somewhere exotic, though, turning up on a high school stadium seat in Coronado, California.
In October, we investigated what we light-heartedly named the “cranial microbiome,” looking into the bacteria that reside in a head of hair. We learned that Japanese scientists discovered a completely new bacterial species lurking in hairspray, of all places, back in 2008. They named this new species Microbacterium hatanosis. The “hat” in hatanosis, by the way, had nothing to do with heads, but was in honor of the eminent microbiologist Dr Kazunori Hatano.
We also revealed what happened when researchers at the University of Arizona checked well-used hairbrushes for bacteria. Their results showed that a hairbrush can contain a higher level of bacteria than a bathroom sink plughole or a pet feeding bowl.
As winter approached, one of our November posts looked into the idea that, like many animals, bacteria might hibernate. Scientists call hibernation “dormancy,” and we saw that bacteria do indeed enter this state at times. Some species form what are called endospores, an inactive form of bacteria with the ability to survive for extended periods without nutrients. They can be resistant to extreme cold, many disinfecting chemicals, and even radiation levels that would have normally doomed them.
We also learned that the gut microbiomes of brown bears change when these animals hibernate. Scientists discovered this by collecting fecal samples from bears tranquilized with darts shot from the air, prompting our reassurance that when you have your own microbiome analyzed by uBiome, we don’t send round a guy in a helicopter with a tranquilizer gun.
We rounded off the year with a wander through the world of the “poop emoji,” recognizing that analyzing the gut microbiome at uBiome makes us daily dealers of the brown stuff. We saw that, in some apps, you can include a poop emoji by typing the shortcode :hankey: – in homage to the 1997 South Park episode “Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo,” featuring a talking and singing piece of feces wearing a red hat.
Continuing our expedition, we noted that the LA-based writer, Peter Miller, had accidentally discovered that the poop emoji and the ice cream emoji have distinct similarities. In fact, with the help of Photoshop, Mr Miller found that the ice cream emoji is, precisely, the poop emoji minus eyes and mouth, plus a cone, and a change of color. As we said, uh, yum.
There you have it, then. A quick review of just some of our posts last year. In fact we published over fifty, and are hugely grateful for the positive feedback they received from readers like you. Will there be more coming your way in 2017? Just try and stop us. Our very best are for the coming year.