Why I Love Microbiology

I’ve been off the bench for almost a year, and while I don’t miss clocking in at 7:00 am or shoveling my driveway at 5 in the morning so I can get to work, I do miss actually working in a microbiology lab. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Making something out of nothing. For me, growing microorganisms on an agar plate is the closest thing to magic a laboratory scientist can do. Today, the plate is sterile; tomorrow, teeming with bacteria!

2. Learning more about a patient’s personal habits than you wanted to. Gram negative bacteria in a throat culture, oral flora in a necrotic toe, a forty-something with a UTI caused by S. saprophyticus or isolating Pasturella canis from a buttock incision site. Microbiologists know everyone’s dirty little secrets.

3. The technologist becomes the patient. When my husband and I adopted kittens, I immediately broke out in an itchy, scaly rash. Of course I performed a calcofluor white stain on a skin scraping that … just happened … to find itself on a glass slide. Diagnosing my own ringworm infection was equal parts exciting and dismaying. And since some of my flaky skin also made its way to an agar plate, we had a great fungus for our students.  (For the record, we identified Mycosporum gypsem.)

4. Finding the occasional zebra. I’ll never forget the feeling the first time I recovered Malessezia furfur or the day I found an H2S-producing E. coli.

5. Learning something new everyday. Whether it was a new process at the bench, a new organism I hadn’t seen before, or attending an infectious disease lecture given by a resident, I was constantly learning about the exciting world of bacteria.

And last, but certainly not least:

6. Using my unique skill set to make a difference in patient’s lives every day.

What are some of the reasons you love your job?

Swails

Kelly Swails, MT(ASCP), is a laboratory professional, recovering microbiologist, and web editor for Lab Medicine.

Dangerous Beauty

Potentially deadly pathogens have never looked so good. A false-color electron-microscope slideshow on Discover depicts organisms such as Campylobacter and Streptococcus pyogenes in a whole new light. Apparently actresses and models aren’t the only ones who benefit from Photoshop.

 

Swails

Kelly Swails, MT(ASCP), is a laboratory professional, recovering microbiologist, and web editor for Lab Medicine.

Are Antibacterial Soaps Effective?

The FDA is asking manufacturers to prove the effectiveness of their antibacterial products that use triclosan or triclocarban as the active ingredient. (See the press release here.) This comes on the heels of last week’s announcement of their plan to help phase out the use of medically important antibiotics in food animals.

When I became a microbiologist I stopped using products with triclosan in an effort to curb antibiotic resistance. While I like to see the FDA’s efforts, I wonder if they’re doing too little, too late, and I’m not the only one.

Some additional reading on the topic:

1. Mechanism of triclosan resistance study, published 1999.

2. Another triclosan resistance study, published 2006.

Edited to add: Maryn McKenna’s excellent write-up on the topic.

Swails

-Kelly Swails is a laboratory professional, recovering microbiologist, and web editor for Lab Medicine.

Dirty Winds

Over at Body Horrors, Rebecca Kreston writes about public health concerns of infectious disease and parasites. In this thought-provoking post, she discussions musicians (specifically, those who play wind instruments) and lung infections. She cites several small studies that found pathogens (Mycobacterium, Stenotrophomonas, and Cryptococcus) in instruments such as saxophones and trumpets.

The moral of the story: horn musicians, clean your instruments. And don’t ignore a persistent cough.

Swails

Kelly Swails, MT(ASCP), is a laboratory professional, recovering microbiologist, and web editor for Lab Medicine.

New Product Friday–Alifax SPA

Using light scattering technology to identify bacteria has been around for a few years (as evidenced by this paper from 2009 and this article from 2006. The methodology described in these articles use actual bacterial colony growth on conventional media for identification. This only shaves a day off turnaround time. This is handy, but can we do any better?

Enter Alifax SPA. They claim to have an automated analyzer capable detecting the presence of pathogenic bacteria, quantifying (in CFU/ml) that bacteria, and measuring the drug resistance of that organism in a few hours by using light scattering technology. Those techs that have worked in hematology or urinalysis are no stranger to this type of analyzer, but how well does it translate to the world of microbiology?

Does anyone have any experience with the HB&L or the Alfred 60? How do you feel about these analyzer? Do you like this much automation in the microbiology laboratory? Let us know in the comments.

-Kelly Swails

 

 

 

I’ll Have Pasteurized Milk, Please

Recently officials determined the cause of death of a young mother in Las Vegas: tuberculosis. The family Mycobacteriaceae contains several pathogenic species, including the most famous, M. tuberculosis. While none of the articles I read mention the species, they do mention the patient consumed unpasteurized dairy products, which leads me to believe she died of the zoonotic organism M. bovis.

Since these organisms are recovered infrequently, clinical microbiologists should brush up on the basics of these organisms on occasion. The CDC has some general information on Tuberculosis; the illustrious contributors at Wikipedia go a bit more in depth. The best sources for information are reference textbooks such as the Manual of Microbiology. It’s important to remember that mycobacteria can infect any region of the body, not just the respiratory system, so it’s important to keep an open mind. It’s also helpful to know that some species are rapid growers and may present on blood agar in a routine culture.

-Kelly Swails

 

Are We Approaching the Post-Antibiotic Era?

While I was out of the office last week, Maryn McKenna wrote up a few informative blog posts about the CDC’s threat report. 

The first summarizes the lengthy report (114 pages) by highlighting the top three “urgent” threats–CRE, N. gonorrhoeae, and C. difficle. She also mentions that CDC’s director Dr. Tom Frieden states “If we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era. And for some patients and for some microbes, we are already there.”

Another post discusses the connection between agricultural antibiotic use and bacterial resistance in humans.

As an aside, if you’re as much of an emerging disease junkie as I am, check out McKenna’s blog on a regular basis. She’s also written a book on MRSA that should be required reading for all clinical microbiologists. It’s one part history, one part science lesson, and one part cautionary tale about this bacterium.

-Kelly Swails