Microbiology Today February 2001

Ever under increasing threat from infectious disease, the world's population of both humans and animals needs clinical microbiologists. These important scientists strive to diagnose, treat and study microbial infections. The SGM has recently founded a new Clinical Microbiology subject interest group for its members and this issue of Microbiology Today looks at some of the problems currently facing practitioners and researchers.

Stephen Gillespie, of the Royal Free & University College Medical School, London, is convener of the new Group . He looks back at the discoveries in medicine at the end of the 19th century that paved the way to transforming the health of millions over the past hundred years and contemplates the Golden Age of clinical microbiology that might be to come. Technological revolutions brought about by genomics, proteomics and structural biology hold great promise for answering critical scientific questions in infection.

One of the questions that has long puzzled microbiologists is what makes one organism pathogenic whilst another lives harmlessly in the body and indeed may be beneficial. Tony Hart and Craig Winstanley of Liverpool University describe how 'pathogenicity islands' in the DNA of harmful micro-organisms encode for secretion systems which wreak havoc on the cells of their unwilling hosts. Greater understanding of how microbial and mammalian cells interact may lead to exciting new ways of preventing and treating infectious diseases.

You don't want to come out hospital more ill than when you went in, but the risks of acquiring an infection whilst in the wards are not insignificant. Getting a nosocomial infection is bad enough, but if the pathogen is multi-resistant to antibiotics as well, making treatment difficult, what can be done? Peter Hawkey of Leeds University describes the rising incidence of microbes like MRSA and speculates how microbiologists will cope with the major challenges caused by hospital-acquired infections in the future.

One aspect of the problem of antimicrobial resistance is the need to detect and identify resistant organisms very quickly. Conventional methods take days, whereas modern molecular techniques such as PCR and DNA chip applications can be done within hours, as Ad Fluit (Utrecht) and Franz-Joseph Schmitz (Dusseldorf) describe.

New technology is also being used to identify previously unknown pathogens which cannot be cultured in the laboratory by traditional methods. Work on genomes is beginning to reveal core genes involved in pathogenicity or virulence. Maybe one day micro-arrays will allow clinical samples to be screened quickly for all members of a virus family, or possibly all pathogens. The potential applications of genomics, bioinformatics and other molecular methods are both infinite and exciting, as Robin Weiss and Paul Kellam of the Wohl Virion Centre, London describe.

Fungal infections often occur in healthy people; most women get an attack of thrush (Candida) at some time in their lives and athlete's foot is suffered by sporty types everywhere. Such infections are usually easily treated, but in people whose immune system is compromised, perhaps by chemotherapy or because they have AIDS, fungal diseases can result in severe illness or even death. Marc Mendelson, formerly of Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, describes the different types of mycoses, how they are acquired and what can be done to treat them.

There has been no malaria in England since the 1950s, but factors as diverse as foreign travel and climate changes put us a risk of contracting this disease. Other protozoan parasites can be unwelcome holiday souvenirs as well, causing a range of unpleasant and sometimes long lasting symptoms. Diarrhoea is a common feature of these illnesses, but some home-grown organisms can also be a cause. Cryptosporidium and Giardia from domestic water supplies have been implicated in recent outbreaks, costing millions and resulting in a change in the legal requirements for testing water. Tim McHugh of the Royal Free and University College Medical School describes all of these parasites and a range of others that occur in the UK.

Who was the first microbiologist? Science historians will not agree on this point, but Milton Wainwright (University of Sheffield) is sure that it was not Louis Pasteur. He explores a range of microbiological discoveries made in the period between Leeuvenhoek's observations of animalcules in the late 17th century and Pasteur's fermentation studies which began in 1857.

Although virus diseases such as polio have been controlled by vaccination and one, smallpox, has been eradicated, viruses remain a potent threat to human and animal health. The SGM is holding a conference to discuss the broad-ranging issues involved and Geoff Smith, convener of the Virus Group, previews the lecture topics.

Hot off the Press [Acrobat PDF] highlights some new developments in microbiological research that have been published in the Society's journals - Microbiology, Journal of General Virology and International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. Topics covered include:
  • Chlamydial controversy - modern DNA-based methods have led to proposals to revise the classification of these obligately parasitic bacteria; but will this help clinicians?
  • Microbial alternative to plastics - biodegradable polymers made by bacteria hold promise as a future packaging material
  • Natural transformation - how bacteria take up DNA from their surroundings and incorporate it into their chromosomes
  • A 'jumbo' virus problem - a newly discovered killer virus in elephants
  • Collagen look-alike involved in streptococcal infection - Streptococcus pyogenes produces a protein similar to collagen
  • Turning up the heat for BSE - how hot does it have to be to degrade prion protein effectively?
Going Public [Acrobat PDF], which features science promotion activities, covers:

  • The fungal village - Mike Milner describes his fun weekend promoting the understanding of fungi to villagers in Northumberland
  • ScienceWorld - from medicine to media - Chris Smith describes his science hour on local radio

Other items include:

Last updated 29 May 2003