Category Archive 'Microbiology'

05 Apr 2016

Microbiology Used to Trace Hannibal’s Crossing of the Alps

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Chris Allen, at Phys Org, describes how microbiologists are using the bacteria in horse manure to attempt to identify the route used by Hannibal’s Carthaginians to cross the Alps and invade Italy.

Despite thousands of years of hard work by brilliant scholars, the great enigma of where Hannibal crossed the Alps to invade Italy remained unsolved. But now it looks like we may just have cracked it – all thanks to modern science and a bit of ancient horse poo. As a microbiologist, I was part of the team that carried out the research.

Hannibal was the leader of the Carthaginian army during the Second Punic War with Rome (218-201BC). He famously led his 30,000 assorted troops (including 37 elephants and over 15,000 horses) across the Alps to invade Italy – bringing the Roman war machine to its knees. While the great general was ultimately defeated after 16 years of bloody conflict, this campaign is now regarded as one of the finest military endeavours of antiquity. We can say, in retrospect, that these events ultimately shaped the later Roman Empire and therefore the European civilisation as we know it.

For more than 2,000 years historians, statesmen and academics have argued about the route he took. Even Napoleon is known to have shown an interest. But until now, there’s not been any solid archaeological evidence.

Our international team, led by Bill Mahaney of York University in Toronto, have finally provided solid evidence for the most likely transit route: a pass called the Col de Traversette. This narrow pass between a row of peaks is located on the border slightly south-east of Grenoble in France and south-west of Turin in Italy. Our findings are published in Archaeometry.

19 Nov 2013

Gut Bacteria Űber Alles

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Not only do gut bacteria regulate our metabolism, NPR tells us, some scientists now think that the same bacteria may influence moods, emotions, and may even behind some mental disorders like bipolarity and autism.

21 Nov 2012

Scientists, For Now, Withholding Big News From Mars

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Mars Rover and scoop marks


Scientists working on NASA’s six-wheeled rover on Mars have a problem. But it’s a good problem.

They have some exciting new results from one of the rover’s instruments. On the one hand, they’d like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument.

It’s a bind scientists frequently find themselves in, because by their nature, scientists like to share their results. At the same time, they’re cautious because no one likes to make a big announcement and then have to say “never mind.”

The exciting results are coming from an instrument in the rover called SAM. “We’re getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting,” John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission, says during my visit last week to his office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. That’s where data from SAM first arrive on Earth. “The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down,” says Grotzinger.

SAM is a kind of miniature chemistry lab. Put a sample of Martian soil or rock or even air inside SAM, and it will tell you what the sample is made of.

Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something earthshaking. “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” he says.

I’m betting on microbial life.


quotes a News Agency report of the additional locating by the Mars rover of “a small, bright object.”

NASA officials say the Curiosity rover has made its first scoop of the surface of planet Mars and has detected a bright object on the ground.

Officials said in a news release Monday that they suspect the object might be a part of the six-wheeled rover, but they won’t sample or scoop anymore until they figure out what it is.

The Curiosity has already beamed back pictures of bedrock that suggest a fast-moving stream once flowed on the planet.

The rover landed Aug. 5 and is on a two-year, $2.5 billion mission to study whether microbial life could have existed on Mars in the past.

Cigar band dropped by Captain John Carter, C.S.A.

22 Apr 2011

What’s In Your Intestine?

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Wired describes a newly published scientific paper offering a new form of human taxonomic classification. This development offers promise of assistance in treating gastrointestinal diseases and obesity and in more specifically personalizing medical treatment in general.

In much the same way that every person has one of eight common blood types, each of us may contain one of several possible bacterial communities, suggests new research. …

In the latest study [Published Apr. 21 in Nature], [Mani] Arumugam, fellow EMBL bionformaticist Peer Bork and dozens of other researchers sequenced every gene they could find in fecal samples from 22 people from Denmark, France, Italy and Spain. Then they searched the data for patterns, looking to see if certain arrangements of bacteria tended to be found in certain people.

The search returned three distinctive “enterotypes,” or bacterial communities dominated by a distinct genus — Bacteroides, Prevotella or Ruminococcus — each of which is found with a particular community of bacteria (see picture above).

“One analogy that people draw — I don’t know how accurate it is yet — is blood type,” said Arumugam. “It’s not exactly the same. Blood types don’t change, but we don’t know if enterotypes do.”

Further analysis of microbiomes from 13 Japanese and four Americans returned the same three clusters, suggesting the patterns are widespread and unconnected to ethnicity, age or gender. With such a limited sample size, however, containing no microbiomes from South Asia, Africa, South America and Australia, it remains to be seen whether other enterotypes exist.

Beyond identifying the enterotypes, “anything we say now will be a hypothesis,” said Arumugam. In terms of function, each of the enterotype-defining genera has been linked to nutrient-processing preferences — Bacteroides to carbohydrates, Prevotella to proteins called mucins, or Ruminococcus to mucins and sugars — but far more may be going on.

“Exactly what they are doing in there is still to be explored,” said Arumugam.

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