Microbiology Today November 2001

From the cradle to the grave, the human body interacts closely with micro-organisms. Most of these microbes are benign, some are essential to our existence and a tiny minority can do us harm. In this issue of Microbiology Today we explore some of the relationships encountered with a whole range of microbes at different stages in our lives.

The lot of man is characterized by nine months in the uterus followed by 'three score years and ten'. Throughout this span there is an ever-present challenge to our health and well-being from infectious diseases. Starting in the time before birth and ending with maturity and old age, Roger Finch (University of Nottingham) charts the pathogens that we have to contend with.

Herpesviruses can affect us at all ages, whether it be chicken pox in childhood, glandular fever in adolescence, or genital infection through sexual activity. Most adults are infected with several herpesviruses, although remarkably the majority do not cause any symptoms. Paul Griffiths (Royal Free and University College Medical School, London) describes the various types, the diseases that they can produce and the available treatments.

One particularly distressing condition affecting young adults is acne. Surprisingly, the first signs of this disease can appear as young as 8 years old. Anne Eady and Richard Bojar (University of Leeds) answer the question 'what is acne?' and explore the progress of current research. Medication for acne is available, but it seems that spots may not necessarily be all bad news. There is some evidence that acne enhances the immune response to worse conditions such as cancer.

Staying on a skin theme, we all use cosmetics and toiletries every day without a thought for the problems that manufacturers have in making these products safe from invasion by micro-organisms. Brian Perry (Procter and Gamble) reveals how cosmetics become contaminated - mostly by the user - and how they can spoil. He covers the microbes most likely to cause problems and the potential clinical consequences of contamination before describing manufacturing processes and the principles of preservation.

Childbed or puerperal fever caused a high maternal mortality in the past. Milton Wainwright (University of Sheffield) shows how implementing simple measures like handwashing in the 19th century helped to reduce the death toll, although it is not clear who exactly was the first to discover the benefits of such hygienic practices.

But is it possible to be too clean? There may be a link between hygiene and allergies. Sundeep Salvi and Stephen Holgate (University of Southampton) discuss the pros and cons of the Hygiene Hypothesis.

Ulcers were once blamed on stress, but a bacterium is now known to be the cause. Instead of an operation, a course of antibiotics can put paid to the harmful effects of Helicobacter pylori on our stomachs. Dave Kelly (University of Sheffield) describes the innovative research that led to this amazing discovery and the treatment now available.

And finally, when the grim reaper gets us, what happens to our bodies? Not surprisingly, microbes make sure that no mess is left behind. Human decomposition expert and forensic pathologist Arpad Vass describes the process of decay.

Prion diseases like BSE and vCJD are always in the headlines. Stephen Dealler (Bradford) highlights the latest developments in the diagnosis and treatment of these frightening conditions.

This year applications to microbiology degree courses are down by 16.5%. This is a worrying trend, given the number of microbiological problems currently facing society, such as foot-and-mouth disease, biological warfare and AIDS. What can we do about it? Janet Hurst (SGM) considers some of the factors involved and suggests a few measures that universities could take to improve their future recruitment.

The SGM has just opened up membership to schools, following the success of initiatives to promote microbiology to this sector by way of teaching resources and training courses. A new feature, Schoolzone, will address issues of relevance to microbiology teaching and provide information and advice. The first edition introduces some of the services and activities on offer from the Society.

Hot off the Press [Acrobat PDF] highlights some new developments in microbiological research published in the Society's journals - Microbiology, Journal of General Virology and International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. Topics covered include:
  • Programmed to die - do yeasts commit suicide?
  • Breaking down the wall - Candida research may lead to new anti-fungal drugs
  • Immunobiology of TSEs - how do prion proteins get from the stomach to the brain?
  • Metal-resistant bacteria - new species of Ralstonia discovered
  • Detecting pre-clinical BSE in sheep - the search for a reliable test
  • Prion wasting disease in deer - building up a picture of a wild strain TSE
  • Pearls of cyanobacterial wisdom - identifying Nostoc commune
  • Biofilm formation in the cystic fibrosis lung - microbial communication

Other items include:

  • Gradline [Acrobat PDF] - Promega prize winners speak; SOAPBOX letters and a postgrad meeting in Scotland
  • Going Public [Acrobat PDF] - the Alphabet of Science, a project to promote the public understanding of science

Last updated 29 May 2003