Blog Archive

Monday, 12 December 2016

#MeetThePhD 3: Robert Millar: Using Bacteria to turn Bark into Bite

The idea behind meet the PhD is to showcase PhD students, give a bit of an idea of what’s going on out there in PhDland, and show to the world what PhD life is like! Perhaps they are thinking of doing a PhD themselves, or just generally want to know more about it. Or they’re already doing a PhD and want to see that they’re not alone in their struggles or successes!

While Friendly Bacteria is a vaguely microbiology-themed blog, for this series of mini-interviews I’m wanting any PhD student no matter the field! I think it will be a fun way to connect with other PhD students we wouldn’t normally be able to get to know, too.

If you’re a PhD student and want to get involved with this, leave a comment here, send me a DM on Twitter ( @friendlybugblog ) or shine the Bacteria-signal into the skies above Aberystwyth and I’ll send you the questions!

Previous ones are here: http://friendlybacteriablog.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/meetthephd

This time, we've got Robert Millar, a fellow bacteria-jockey, but from Warwick!

Sunday, 6 November 2016

#MeetThePhD 2: Olly the Criminologist!

The idea behind meet the PhD is to showcase PhD students, give a bit of an idea of what’s going on out there in PhDland, and show to the world what PhD life is like! Perhaps they are thinking of doing a PhD themselves, or just generally want to know more about it. Or they’re already doing a PhD and want to see that they’re not alone in their struggles or successes!

While Friendly Bacteria is a vaguely microbiology-themed blog, for this series of mini-interviews I’m wanting any PhD student no matter the field! I think it will be a fun way to connect with other PhD students we wouldn’t normally be able to get to know, too.

If you’re a PhD student and want to get involved with this, leave a comment here, send me a DM on Twitter ( @friendlybugblog ) or shine the Bacteria-signal into the skies above Aberystwyth and I’ll send you the questions!

Previous ones are here: http://friendlybacteriablog.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/meetthephd

This time, we've got a good friend of mine I've known most of my life! Here's Olly's PhD experience:
(My favourite part is when he says he's in awe of people like me)

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Bacteria; How do we Kill Them?

I like focusing on the friendly, useful bacteria, but there are some pretty mean nasty ones out there that cause horrible diseases, wipe out crops, contaminate my experiments, and generally ruin everyone's day. That's where exciting things like antibiotics, sterilising procedures and autoclaves come in; they are our weapons, killing these unwanted bacteria. But how do they work? How do we actually kill bacteria?

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Did I Just Make Life? Following in Frankenstein's Footsteps

I don't mean travelling to the Arctic circle in search of revenge, (although lets not rule that out just yet) but rather building something living out of parts I dug up at midnight in a graveyard bought off Amazon. I am of course talking about building a computer, something I've never done before! I spent yesterday evening scratching my head at poorly translated instructions and peering intently at tiny wires. But that's not the point; the point is that in doing so I could relate a lot of what goes on in a computer to what goes on in a living cell, so thought I could shamelessly steal that as an analogy for this blog.

Spoilers; the answer to 'Did I just make life?' is definitely 'no'. But that's ok, because the journey is more important than the final answer sometimes!

Monday, 10 October 2016

World Mental Health Day; My Mental Health Tips


Today (the tenth of October) is World Mental Health day! Mental Health is a really important issue for me personally, but also for everyone; while nobody really talks about it 9not nearly enough, at least) it impacts on a huge percentage of the population, and is the biggest cause of death in my age group in the UK. It is likely to affect you, or someone you know, either right now or in the future, so I thought today I'd share some of my tips for lookjing after your mental health. I found these out the hard way so hopefully sharing them will stop somebody else having to!

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Working Things Through; Imposter Syndrome and Fear of Messing Up

I am not confident in myself. Not just when I speak to people, or do anything traditionally nerve-wracking, but in everything I do, and everything I am; or at least, that I'm pretending to be. It feels like the classic 'imposter syndrome' deal, but it is seeping through my whole life. A lot of the time I feel like I just go through the motions, or that I am permanently 'faking it till I make it', even when I'm just being me.

There's this Gareth lurking in my head who is really happy with who I am. I get excited at the prospect of being 'me', of doing things I do like going into the lab, writing out a blog post, doing all the fun little sciencey hobby stuff I've started doing now with all the Instagram and videos and blog things. Being a proper scientist like I've always wanted, with things like talking at conferences, doing the public engagement bits, my Friendly Bacteria internet things...

Is that the real me though? Because if you take the whole me, the Garethome if you will, that's not how it pans out. That stuff really scares me. Like, to the point where I freeze up entirely. Even really easy, small stuff like checking on how my bacteria are growing in the lab. My office is almost opposite the lab, I could be up from my desk, suited up with lab coat and gloves and spraying things down with ethanol within sixty seconds. And yet whole days have gone by where I've had things I can be doing in the lab but I can't bring myself to even leave my chair. Not because I don't know what I'm doing, or anything like that, but that I'm so afraid trying to become this version of myself that I do actually want to become that even the first small steps are really overwhelming. I have officey things to do while I'm there anyway, but quick trips to the lab are delayed minutes, hours, sometimes even a whole day.

With this Friendly Bacteria stuff, too, I hit the same wall. Every time I pipe up on Twitter as being willing to chat with people or interact or do whatever, I almost immediately completely lock up, unable to respond to whoever it may be when they reply to my comments/tweets/emails. When I do, it's typically been non-committal, avoiding actually signing up to do anything concrete... I do want to, but I'm scared that I can't, or that I'll mess it up. Bringing it back round to the imposter syndrome; I'm scared that I'm not a person who actually can do these things, and that putting myself in the position to do them will just reveal to myself and everyone else that that's the case... and knowing what imposter syndrome, and all that stuff means and is, doesn't help much when you're in that situation.

That's the deal, that's where I am right now. But, writing this down has helped sort things out. I've said a few times how I do actually want to be doing what I do, from my PhD to the scicomm-y Friendly Bacteria stuff. I do know what it's like for my head to not quite agree with itself, too, for various reasons that aren't for today, and I know how I can diminish it to manageable levels, even unnoticeable levels. Friendly Bacteria has been irregular lately, which is making it harder to keep up with; that's something I can easily change, and that will help things. And I need to remember, or remind myself when I need to, that the lab is my happy place. I put on my lab coat, and I change. It's like a mask, or an acting part, but I'm acting like myself. Like the me that gets excited rather than hiding away. Like the me that I want to be.


And wherever I am, I need to remember that that lab, that feeling, is just across the corridor.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

She Sells Bacterial Cells on the Sea Shore; Marine Microbiology

Bacteria are everywhere! On Earth, at least. That includes land, air, and in the sea too! All seven of them. With animals, the ones living in the sea are pretty different to the ones on land; there aren't many tentacled land animals, for example! Most land animals wouldn't be too happy if you dropped them in the middle of the atlantic, and nearly all the fish would be similarly unhappy if you put them in the middle of a car park. Is it the same with bacteria? How have marine microbes evolved to survive and thrive in the deep?

This is the sea, in case you weren't sure! Taken from outside my house last week.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Birthday Weekend in Pictures!

Last weekend was my birthday weekend! I'm now on lap 24 around the sun. I've not had time to settle back into normal life just yet, not helped by some mystery illness, but here's a quick post all about the awesome weekend I had! Complete with pictures!

It was a pretty perfect weekend, which is unusual for me as I'm not normally a big birthday person! Thank you, Ciara :) And my family too! And all my friends, especially the Nerds!

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Fantastic Bacteria and Where to Find Them!

There are awesome animals in the world. There’s the big famous ones like elephants and eagles, and there’s the really weird ones nobody really hears about like the Mexican Mole Lizard or the Emerald Cockroach Wasp (and if you don’t know about them, look them up, they’re awesome!). But they are pretty hard to find; not just being elusive in their habitats, but in having limited habitats. Even animals like kangaroos that are quite prolific in their own habitat only cover a small percentage of the planet! There are loads of them, and they’re big enough to spot from a distance, but I won’t be seeing any in the wild unless I take a long journey. Bacteria, on the other hand, are everywhere! And you get some really awesome ones of them too, especially ones nobody ever hears about. They aren’t as big as kangaroos [citation needed] but if you know how to find them you can see some fantastic ones!

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

#OneMinuteMicrobiology

I’m apparently not satisfied with having a Blog, Twitter and YouTube, so got Instagram too, after this twitter conversation:



I was just throwing the idea of 1 minute videos out there, not even knowing that 1 minute is the Instagram video length limit, but it’s actually been really fun doing them! I’ve done a few so far (I’ll embed them at the bottom of this in case you have like four minutes to spare) and I’m having fun with it. It’s a big challenge, and I think once I run out of all the short basic things to cover it’ll get even harder (as things normally take days, not minutes!) but I love a challenge, and this one is pretty fun! And hopefully worthwhile if it gets more people thinking about microbiology stuff.
So far I haven’t really settled on a specific style, or level at which I’m pitching things, but I’m hoping to make it accessible to everyone no matter their background. Microbiology affects everyone, so everyone should know about it! It’s also really interesting and exciting but isn’t really thought of like that.

Also of course there’s my long-term selfish goal of gaining confidence by doing these videos and things. I’m already feeling some benefits but I’ve got a hugely long way to go!

Anyway, here are the videos I've made so far (with bonus new one I made today!):





And the new one...



I hope you like it! Subscribe to the YouTube for more, or follow my Instagram.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Fiftieth Post! 10 things I've learnt over that time

This is my fiftieth blog post! What?! It's gone so fast! It's also pretty dead-on six months (give or take a day or three) since I started. It's flown by! I thought I'd mark it by doing a post of ten things I've learnt over the last fifty posts/six months. (I've only actually thought of nine right now but I'm hoping one will come to me as I write the rest!)
So here we go:

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Xenobiology; Microbial life on other planets!

When we think of aliens we think of invaders from other worlds, Sigourney Weaver being badass and Arnold Schwarzenegger directing people towards waiting air transport (while also being badass). But, at least in our own solar system, it's most likely that any life we find out there will be microbial. This makes sense; they're much better at living in conditions different to the normal Earth ones! We may have warm jumpers and air conditioning, but there aren't many people who are happy to reproduce in acid lakes or at the bottom of the ocean in hydrothermal vents. Microbes 1, Humans 0.
So are we going to all get crazy space diseases if they come to Earth, much like the end of War of the Worlds when the aliens all get flu?
I'm not an expert in this, I just think it's a cool topic so wanted to write a post on it! There's a lot more to say so it might return in the future, like alien herpes.


Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Lions! Tigers! Bacillus thuringiensis...? Where are the snappy bacteria names?

In line with my earlier post (http://friendlybacteriablog.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/speaking-science.html) on the scientific language and the barrier it imposes, even the names of microbes pose a problem for this. Especially as they're often a mix of Latin, Greek and Science, which just confuses everyone even more. We call Ursus arcticus a brown bear, Canis lupus familiaris a dog, but there aren't any easy familiar words for microbes. Apart from Yeast, the rockstar of the microbial world, things are either referred to by the name of the disease they cause or just by the long, hard-to-say binomial names. Is that fair?

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Speaking Science

Scientists love big complex words. I've spent this week isolating halophilic endophytes, for example. But why do we do that? And what does it do to the public image of science?

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

What makes me a Scientist?

Science is all about asking questions. But every answer brings further questions; this is why Science never stops! Especially if the original answer is 'I don't know, go and find out!'
This is what drives us forwards; curiosity. Scientists are just people who can't stop asking questions about absolutely everything. As XKCD aptly put it;
Image from XKCD https://xkcd.com/242/

I think that's a big part of how you become a scientist; you just need to ask questions!

Sunday, 31 July 2016

#MeetThePhD

Time for something new! Time for a monthly blog post series, with little mini-interviews of PhD students around the world! Time for…

#MeetThePhD

The idea behind this is to showcase PhD students, give a bit of an idea of what’s going on out there in PhDland, and show to the world what PhD life is like! Perhaps they are thinking of doing a PhD themselves, or just generally want to know more about it. Or they’re already doing a PhD and want to see that they’re not alone in their struggles or successes!

While Friendly Bacteria is a vaguely microbiology-themed blog, for this series of mini-interviews I’m wanting any PhD student no matter the field! I think it will be a fun way to connect with other PhD students we wouldn’t normally be able to get to know, too.

If you’re a PhD student and want to get involved with this, leave a comment here, send me a DM on Twitter ( @friendlybugblog ) or shine the Bacteria-signal into the skies above Aberystwyth and I’ll send you the questions!

 I'll go first:

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Science is so ridiculously exciting!

I love it. I really do.

I just had a massive meeting with my whole supervisory team (which is quite a lot of people!) which I was terrified about beforehand. I was shaking like a leaf! But it wasn't a meeting with scary supervisors; it was a meeting with fellow scientists, who are all as excited about my project as I am! They just happen to be my supervisors/lab manager. (I do this every time! I get really scared until they remind me that we're all really happy enthusiastic scientists, and they're all lovely people!)

Saturday, 23 July 2016

My Bacteria Senses are Tingling

Bacteria experience a completely different world to us. We see things on a comparatively huge scale, sampling the air with our noses, feeling the textures of surfaces  that it would take billions of bacteria to cover with a simple brush of the hand and taking in light of enough frequencies to form a detailed picture of the world. But what do bacteria see? How do they experience the world they inhabit?

Thursday, 21 July 2016

What are Friendly Bacteria? (First science video!)


For months I've been wanting to make science videos (rather than just sunset timelapses or videos of fun adventures I have) , and for weeks I've been working on it on and off. So here it is: 'What are Friendly Bacteria?'

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Bacteria are just Tiny Pokémon!

Growing up, I was the right age to get hooked on Pokémon when it started getting crazy popular. I played the game boy games to death, I still have a huge box full of cards, and would get up early so I could watch the cartoon before school. That was years ago, but I'm still doing the same stuff: reading about special creatures, collecting them and sometimes forcing them to evolve. No, I'm not still a rabid Pokémon fan (although I do love a bit of Pokken tournament, and will be jumping on Pokémon Go as soon as I can), I'm just a microbiologist!

My creatures are bacteria, and I collect them in the minus eighty freezer. They have 'types', like the ice type (psychrophiles), fire type (thermophiles) and pretty much everything else too! I work with endophytes, bacteria that live in plants, so I guess that makes me a grass type trainer?

The more I think about it, the more it fits! Bacteria can produce electricity, can be magnetic, swim, fly and produce toxins. They fight, too; their 'moves' are antibiotics they produce to attack each other with. They constantly change, adapt and evolve. Each species has many different strains, all with different 'stats', just like different individual Pokémon.

And I get to gather them, study them, and use them for great things like helping plants grow! Does that make me a Pokémon trainer? I certainly hope so! That would look sweet on my C.V....

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Video: Trip to the zoo! Mini documentary, sort of

I love animals. All of them. Every single one. And because of this, I've always absolutely adored going to the zoo! I know some zoos get a bad rep but I find the best ones are those that are more animal focused than visitor focused; looking after the animals is the only goal, both at a 'personal' level within the zoo and in the wider global population via breeding programs and stuff like that. There's a small zoo near Aberystwyth that takes in rescued animals, and it's one of my favourite places to go!

They have a huge range of animals from marmosets to lions, all sorts of fun talks and feeds, and it's just a lovely little zoo. (Link to their website!) A few weeks ago I took a trip there with some friends, and took my camera. Here's the resulting video:


I tried to say interesting animal facts so it's not just pictures of cute animals, but there are plenty of those if that's what you're after! A baby marmoset, emu chicks, coati pups and a joey still in the pouch all feature! Lots of awesome fully grown animals too though.

The music on the bits where either the audio was weird or I wasn't really saying anything seems to be slightly out of sync with what I wanted it to be doing, but it's not bad!

I hope you enjoy it! I've got a few more fun day-trip videos that need editing, and I'm nearly ready to start doing science videos, so if you like what I'm doing feel free to subscribe!

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Sickbed Blogging

I'm still ill. Blegh. So today I'm blogging from my sickbed!
As I look around my room, I can see that my bedroom functions as a decent metaphore for how I'm finding life as a PhD student!
That might be helped by the strong flu meds, but I'm going to roll with it anyway.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

What do honeybees, chorizo, and silage have in common?

If you said 'Friendly Bacteria?', you're right! Insects, tasty sausage and fermented grass are all home to Lactic Acid Bacteria, a group of bacteria that, well, produce Lactic Acid.
So what are they, and what can they do for us?

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

It's Nothing Personal; Unfriendly Microbes

I am ill. Blegh. (Not serious, just a cold.)

It's times like this when you have to ask; why, tiny microbes? Why do you do this to me? What did I ever do to you?

...I mean, I've consigned goodness knows how many bacteria to a steamy autoclave-based death, but that wasn't personal!

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Time for a training montage...

I'm really enjoying this whole science communication stuff. It's great fun! Writing this blog is pretty entertaining and keeps me getting involved in developments in the field of microbiology, and now I've got a taste for sci-comm I want to get more involved. There is one problem with that though... me.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Microbiology before Microbes (were discovered)

The field of microbiology is relatively new, at least when compared to things like maths and physics and stuff, but microbes themselves have been around for a while now. Since life began! (That's probably debatable but that's not what I'm talking about today)
We've been interacting with microbes for a long time too, not just in terms of immunity and disease but in deliberate acts. So how did we go about doing microbiology before we discovered microbes? 

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

We're all in this together


I am a human. So are you! But are we just human? Or are we something more? And are we part of something even bigger than ourselves?

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Science for the people! (Alternative title: low blood sugar makes for incoherent blogging)

Science affects you. Yes, you. You're reading this on some kind of electrical device; science. You're probably wearing clothes made of a synthetic material; science. You didn't bring an umbrella today because the forecast said sunshine; science. Room's lit by a lightbulb? Science. Got wheels on your chair? Science.

... You probably get the point. That understanding is science too!

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

3 Months in perfect conditions

I have been writing this blog for three months now! That's totally a milestone now apparently. In that time I've written 35 posts about all sorts of things ranging from Red Kites to snow, Mental Health to clouds. But mainly about bacteria of the friendly variety! But what about the bacteria? What have they done in the last three months? Or rather, given three months and perfect growing conditions, what could they achieve? Probably a lot more than 35 blog posts! Time to work things out:

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Mental Health Awareness Week Post 5: Myself

This week is Mental Health Awareness week, with a theme of 'relationships'. I'm going to be publishing a blog post each day talking about different ways in which relationships with various people (or groups of people) impact on my mental health. I've struggled with depression for years now, and my journey has been shaped by relationships and interactions with others.
Today, I'll be writing about my relationship with myself, leading up to the lowest point in my depression.
 
I've tried to be accurate and descriptive, so don't read this if you think that might get to you.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Mental Health Awareness Week Day 4: Animals

This week is Mental Health Awareness week, with a theme of 'relationships'. I'm going to be publishing a blog post each day talking about different ways in which relationships with various people (or groups of people) impact on my mental health. I've struggled with depression for years now, and my journey has been shaped by relationships and interactions with others.
Today, I'll be writing about my relationships with animals.


Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Mental Health Awareness Week Day 3: Medical People

This week is Mental Health Awareness week, with a theme of 'relationships'. I'm going to be publishing a blog post each day talking about different ways in which relationships with various people (or groups of people) impact on my mental health. I've struggled with depression for years now, and my journey has been shaped by relationships and interactions with others.
Today, I'll be writing about my relationships with all the assorted doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health nurses I've had dealings with over the years.



Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Mental Health Awareness week Day 2: Family

This week is Mental Health Awareness week, with a theme of 'relationships'. I'm going to be publishing a blog post each day talking about different ways in which relationships with various people (or groups of people) impact on my mental health. I've struggled with depression for years now, and my journey has been shaped by relationships and interactions with others.
Today, I'll be writing about my relationships with my family.



Monday, 16 May 2016

Mental Health Awareness week Day 1: Friends

This week is Mental Health Awareness week, with a theme of 'relationships'. I'm going to be publishing a blog post each day talking about different ways in which relationships with various people (or groups of people) impact on my mental health. I've struggled with depression for years now, and my journey has been shaped by relationships and interactions with others.
Today, I'll be writing about my relationships with my friends.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

What a time to be alive... and a Microbiologist

I am so excited to be a microbiologist; it is so fascinating, and there's so much to find out and so many new things to discover that I could spend my entire life in the lab and not take a chunk out of the unexplored world of bacteria.
I studied microbiology for four years at university, including a year in an industrial lab, and now I'm a fair way through the first year of my PhD, but my enthusiasm for the field is only getting stronger. The fantastic thing is, that enthusiasm is getting more and more prevalent in society.
From regular people hearing more about their gut microbiome, being aware of things to do to avoid food poisoning and knowing that there are some friendly bacteria out there, right the way up to the most powerful people in the world.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

MHAW2016: Sharing my Experience

@friendlybugblog friendlybacteriablog.blogspot.co.uk

Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Mental health is something that affects a huge number of us, including myself; I suffer from anxiety and depression, and over the last few years have really struggled with it. Now that I'm beginning to recover, however, I'm keen to help others going through the same sort of thing.

Next week, to help raise awareness and understanding of mental health, I will be posting a blog post every day of the week. The theme is 'relationships', so I'll be looking at different types of relationships and how they all affected me throughout the worst patches of my illness.

Then, I'll share a bit more about my general experience with it all, and answer any questions people might have! 

If you have anything to ask send me a message here or on Twitter (@friendlybugblog)! I'll keep everyone anonymous so ask absolutely anything!

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Dear Sir David

Today (May the 8th) is Sir David Attenborough's 90th birthday! I am a gigantic fan of his, growing up he was a tremendously big influence on my interest in nature and my love of animals, and the source of a lot of the random animal facts that are stored away in my head. I think it's fair to say that without a diet of documentaries by Sir David, I wouldn't be where I am today.

Other kids would be allowed to stay up late to watch the football, reality shows or movies, but I didn't want any of that. I begged and pleaded my parents to let me stay up to watch the latest documentary series. I'd have to get ready for bed, be in my pyjamas (teeth sparkling) and I'd be allowed to stay awake to watch it. I'd sit hugging my knees, right in front of the TV (which looking back was probably a big indicator that I was in desperate need of a trip to the opticians, but that's not the point) and just absorb every word, every animal behaviour, every jungle sound, and the beautiful sights and sounds that our planet has to offer. I fell in love with the natural world, and Sir David Attenborough was the matchmaker for that love.

As I got older, his work was still ever-present in my life. This time in school, if we'd been good or it was near the end of term, we could spend a class with Sir David on the screen rather than the teacher on the whiteboard. This turned the whole idea of the documentaries into more than just a fascinating show, it became the highlight of the school term, even the whole year. And still my mind filled with wonder at the brilliance of what Sir David was showing us all.

Even as I became an unruly eighteen year old, he was still a factor. I remember one night out up in Norwich, where after getting back from the pubs we put on Planet Earth and made up drinking rules for it. My brother, who I assume felt self-destructive, chose to drink every time Sir David said anything interesting...

Afterparties aside, I'm still a great lover of everything Sir David puts on TV. Walking with Dinosaurs being on Netflix sustained me during the final stages of my undergrad studies. And tonight, after posting this and eating dinner, we'll be marking Sir David's birthday in the most fitting way I can think of; I'll be sitting in my pyjamas, hugging my knees, marvelling at the wonders of the world.

Happy Birthday, Sir David. One day I hope to make a tenth of the impact you've made on the world. You're my hero, my idol, and my inspiration. You were my gateway drug into science, and rekindle my love of nature every time you open your mouth to speak. Thank you.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Word Vomit


I’ve been trying to think up a topic to write this blog post on all day (in breaks from working on some actual work) but I still haven’t thought of anything! It’s a little frustrating to be honest. So I’m just going to type whatever pops into my head in the next fifteen minutes while I drink my coffee, and that can be today’s blog post.

Part of the reason I can’t decide what to talk about is that there’s so much to talk about! Bacteria are so diverse and so widely used that it’s really hard to narrow things down and pick a tiny subset to talk about. Just this morning I’ve read about probiotics, antimicrobials, cheese and the human microbiome, not to mention the assorted endophyte papers I’ve been going over! This is one big reason why I’m doing this blog; not only are friendly bacteria everywhere, but science as a whole is everywhere too! You can look at literally anything and there’s science associated with it. Obviously I’m looking at a computer right now, there’s a lot of science there. But there’s science everywhere else too; my coffee is from selectively bred coffee plants, picked for their flavour and then propagated throughout the farms to bring a consistent product. There are genes involved in that process; how amazing is it that changes in the structure of a single molecule of DNA in a plant on the other side of the world can change the flavour in my mug here in Wales? This brings me back to another big reason why I can’t focus today; sleep. It’s been really hot here over the last few days, which really affects my sleeping. It’s weird that a few degrees in temperature can have me wandering round the house at five in the morning, and shuffling brainlessly like a zombie for the rest of the day. Caffeine to the rescue!

Smell is another cool thing to think about. I love the smell of my coffee! Anyone who reads spy/murder books (or watches TV shows I guess) will know that cyanide smells like bitter almonds. Yum! But the chemicals causing the smells are completely different in shape and composition; the olfactory receptors use quantum to detect smells, which is pretty awesome! I don’t know much about quantum biology (although I’ve got a book on it waiting in my to-read pile) so I won’t go into any more detail on that in case I make a fool of myself.

I live in fear of making a fool of myself; I find it really hard to talk about my project, especially to professional academics, because I’m super scared of saying the wrong thing and sounding like I don’t know what I’m talking about, in case they think I shouldn’t be doing a PhD and I somehow get found out and thrown out of here. This is a real thing called imposter syndrome, but knowing that doesn’t help solve the problem much. Speaking to people has always been really hard for me! That’s a big part of why I’m doing this blog, and the vlogs, and will be making little science videos too (hopefully will have one ready this week even!); I need to practice talking, even if it’s just to a camera, because if I don’t then this will hold me back for the rest of my life!
The fifteen-minute alarm’s gone so I’ll wrap up here. A bit of a jumbly word-vomit type post but I don’t mind that too much!

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Bacteria can Chill Out too!

I'm excited, I just found a new use of friendly bacteria I didn't know about!

Pseudomonas syringae is a pretty nasty plant pathogen. In fact, a lot of my reading for my project involves inhibiting or otherwise deterring it from infecting plants. But even a common disease causer like this can have its uses!

Because bacteria are so tiny, they can interact with things much smaller than we can. For example; water! Clouds are full of bacteria (see this blog post for more details) condensing water vapour together, but that's not all they can do. P. syringae can freeze water! Only a few degrees above normal freezing point, but a few degrees can make a huge difference (just look at the climate change stats!). This cool paper shows how they do it; they use proteins to move the water into structured arrangements which encourages freezing.


Why does this make them 'friendly' though? Well, they're used extensively in making artificial snow slopes! I had no idea about this, it's pretty awesome.


It's not just Pseudomonas that can make snowmen!

On the less friendly side of things, it also is bad news for plants; not only does P. syringae cause disease but it increases the likelihood of frost damage too. Which just goes to show; while bacteria may cause adverse affects in certain conditions, in others they can be really handy!



Saturday, 23 April 2016

E. coli: the 'E' isn't for 'Evil'

It actually stands for 'escherichia' (which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, hence always just being called E coli).

Yesterday I was reading something about superbugs, and it listed E coli as one of the deadly ones. Everyone's always on the lookout for E coli contamination in food, restaurants, bathrooms etc. But is it really as scary as it's portrayed in the media?

Some strains are, definitely. K2 causes meningitis in newborn babies, O104H4 causes pretty nasty kidney damage (an outbreak in 2011 killed 52 people across the world) and scarily-named 'Entero-haemorrhagic E coli' strains like O157 cause bloody diarrhoea. Obviously being infected by any of these are on nobody's to-do-list, but just as the majority of bacteria as a whole don't cause disease, there are a huge range of E coli strains that aren't a threat at all. In fact, pretty much everyone has E coli as part of their normal community of gut bacteria! Animals included. That's partly why it's always looked for in restaurants and stuff; if it's in the intestines, then it'll be in what exits the intestines... so when they say 'we found E coli in 4/5 restaurants' they're basically saying there's faeces all over the place, so you should probably eat somewhere else until they start washing their hands! E coli  is therefore the poster boy for faecal contamination, but it's often more of a sign of contamination rather than the worst bacteria in there. It's just that it's much easier to  grow in the lab to detect, and that nowadays when there's so much genetic screening it's again easy to look for as we've got the whole genome sequenced. Often, food poisoning bacteria like Campylobacter jejuni are much more picky about what they want to grow on in the lab so it's quicker, cheaper and easier to just look for the E coli.

This is where E coli starts to redeem itself though; because it's so happy in lab conditions, it's really easy to work with! Everybody should love E coli. Not only is it easy to grow, it's pretty easy to insert genes into via various methods so we can customise it to be useful for all sorts of applications. One of the first examples of this, and one of my favourite examples of Friendly Bacteria, is the E coli that have been modified to produce human insulin. They first did this back in the seventies, and insulin is still made in this way to this day! Yeast is used sometimes too. Before that, they had to cut it out of corpses, or from pigs (which needed lots of accompanying medication).

I couldn't list all the ways E coli is used; a quick search for it on Google Scholar gives more than two and a half million different research papers using it! It's fair to say that without E coli we'd all be a lot worse off.

So should we fear E coli? No! It's our friend! (Apart from the baby-meningitis/bloody diarrhoea ones, feel free to fear them as much as you like)

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Chilling on the beach; Student life Aber style

I went down to the beach yesterday evening, had fish and chips and just sat there with friends until after sunset. For me, this sums up all the best parts of being at University here in Aberystwyth; good friends, beautiful scenery, and a hugely relaxed yet fun atmosphere! Here's a bunch of photos I took:








The last one's looking out the window through some scaffolding that's up at the moment, but it was too good a view to not capture!

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Vlogging; Scientists Are People Too



Weekly Vlog #2! I thought I'd combine this week's vlog with today's blog post to just say why I'm doing it and things like that.

So why am I doing a vlog? I'm ridiculously, painfully shy when talking to anyone. The thought of being the centre of anyone's attention fills me with dread! So why talk about my everyday life and put it out there for the world to see?

Firstly, precisely because it's really scary to me. I both want and need to be better at communicating, not only for things like conferences or my Viva but for general life too. I can barely bring myself to answer the phone, and things like social events or whatever cause me to retreat behind my walls and clam up like... well, a clam. This isn't good, and really holds me back socially which has knock-on affects throughout my life.

Secondly, I want to show that scientists (I know I'm just a PhD student but I'm calling myself one anyway) are people too! Everyone thinks of them as these scary figures in labcoats and rubber gloves but really it's just another job; scientists have fun, go to the pub, go on days out, just like any other person. I want to try and get that message across, and make science seem more accessible and enjoyable; really, anyone can participate in science in one way or another, and everyone can enjoy it!

So that's why I'm doing it. Feel free to tell me how I'm doing, good or bad!

Friday, 15 April 2016

Handy Bacteria

No, not bacteria that can put up your shelves or fix the sink, or even ones that are useful to us... I'm talking hand bacteria! On your hands!

I mentioned before how pretty much everything is harbouring all sorts of bacteria. That definitely includes our hands! Skin is covered with salts and oils and stuff like that that bacteria find super tasty, and that's just average skin! We constantly touch things with our hands, getting tiny but significant amounts of all sorts of stuff (including more bacteria) on them. Now, don't be scared by the whole 'completely coated head to toe in bacteria' thing because as I've said before the overwhelming majority of them won't hurt us! But depending on what you're sticking your hands on, you might pick up something grisly like salmonella or whatever. That's not just touching chicken, though; if Edgar touches a contaminated chicken fillet, then touches the taps or door handle, there'll be salmonella on there, which can get on your hands even if you don't go anywhere near the chicken! Also, never ever wash raw chicken unless you like the idea of spraying tiny droplets of food poisoning onto every surface of your kitchen...

Anyway this isn't a post about food safety, it's about the hand bugs! Recently some researchers found that by comparing the bacteria on your hands to the ones on your belongings, like your phone or keyboard, they can actually get a pretty decent picture of who owns which thing! They'd like to use it for forensic stuff but that's a long way away if it ever happens at all.

Hooray! You thought I was going to be talking about food poisoning and telling you to wash your hands, but no! I pulled it back to the friendly bacteria again, this time crime-solving bacteria! Is there anything they can't do?!

We just watched Bone Tomohawk, it was great but the amount of wound infections and stuff they were constantly risking seemed crazy! We really take for granted how much we know about not getting gangrene that folks back then had no idea about... I guess we take 'not getting killed with an axe' for granted too but I'm here for the microbes not the axe murders!

Good film though, check it out!

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

They Came From Above!

Bacteria are everywhere. In your mouth, in your bed, at the bottom of the sea, underground, anywhere you can name that isn't really hot, really acidic or otherwise too hostile for life. But how did they get there? Some animals are found all over the place but they have stuff like wings and legs and Double Decker buses, bacteria don't have any of that!

On a small scale, they can kind of swim along with big floppy oars/propellers called flagellae, but I'm thinking bigger than that. Of course in the sea they can just float around on the current hoping they don't get eaten by whales, but on land? How did they get to Australia? Or Hawaii?

The key to this is partly their numbers. Being microscopic is less of a problem when there's billions of you, so while individual cells won't make the trip up a mountain or even across the floor the colony as a whole might spread there just by multiplying. Plus, due to their impressive rate of reproduction, even single cells getting to a new place can lead to it being colonised. Bacteria on migrating birds for example can be transferred to new lands. But one of my favourite routes of global bacterial transmission is via the clouds!

Clouds are full of bacteria. In fact, it's been shown that above about four degrees Celsius dust particles can't gather water vapour to form cloud particles, and bacteria are much more likely culprits. Just like marine bacteria float on ocean currents, airborne cloud bacteria can be carried all over the world! 

I used to work in a lab looking for thermophilic bacteria in soil samples from the UK. These bugs were needing temperatures of sixty to seventy degrees, so why were they in cold British soil? There's a weather phenomenon in Britain and Europe where everything gets covered in sand blown up from the Sahara desert, and the same winds can carry thermophiles to distant lands! I was working with Geobacillus, which can hibernate in spores for a huge amount of time, so they just kept getting added to the soil by the wind and rain. They were just sitting there for me to find!

Don't worry too much though: any bacteria in the rain are in too small numbers to cause you any harm. After all, most bacteria are friendly!

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Friendly fungi: trip to the Penderyn distillery (and brewery)

I'm late posting this (and it'll be short) as I've been out today: we took my dad to a whisky distillery as another birthday treat! They had a brewery on site so the microbiologist in me was excited!

Breweries use yeast (saccharomyces cerevisiae) to create the alcohol. They do this by feeding them a sugar source, in this case barley grist, and taking away all the oxygen. This makes the yeast stop using the oxygen for respiration so in order to still get energy it ferments the sugars to ethanol, which gives the drinks their alcohol levels. Ethanol does eventually kill the yeast if there's too much of it, which is why you can't get much higher than fifteen or so percent without distilling it!
We saw that process too, with the big fractionation columns, then got to try some of the end product (and even some of the raw 92% stuff!) Which was delicious!
It was a fantastic day, and for me was great to see some friendly microbes being put to good use! Thanks, Penderyn!

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Taking care of your new pet bacteria

Bacteria have a lot in common with the bigger organisms we all know and love. They need energy, warmth, and all sorts of nutrients in order to grow and live happily. By the way, when talking about bacteria 'grow' normally means 'divide by mitosis to form two daughter bacteria' rather than getting bigger. The great thing about bacteria is, they have adapted to be able to use a huge range of sources of energy and nutrients! Some, like cyanobacteria, harness the power of the sun like plants do. Others live so far underwater that there is no light, so use heat and sulphur and things from deep-sea thermal vents like white-smokers. For food, there are bacteria that can eat pretty much anything; if anything says 'biodegradable', that's just another way of saying 'bacteria can eat me!'

So how do we accommodate these weird and wonderful needs in order to take the bacteria from where they've evolved to live to a much more convenient (for me) laboratory? To be honest for a lot of bacteria we still don't know the answer; only a small proportion are able to be 'cultured', or grown in the lab. We can still find out about the picky ones by sequencing their DNA though, don't worry!

The ones we can grow in the lab do need a bit of looking after. It's a bit like looking after a pet Rabbit! First, you find an enclosure for them; rabbits have hutches, bacteria get petri dishes. Next, they'll need some 'bedding'. Rabbits get hay, which they also like to eat, so in the same way we give the bacteria an agar gel containing nutrients. This gives them a place to grow, and also the food they need! There are a lot of different rabbits but they can mostly be kept fed with the same mix of rabbit food, and once again bacteria are the same. They need a source of carbon, like sugar, some nitrogen, like in ammonia (although some can use it straight from the air), phosphates, and salts. (Of course it's a bit more complicated than that but that's the quick version!) These are all in 'general media' like the well-named 'nutrient agar'. This can then be modified to cater for a particular bacteria or family of bacteria. Some bacteria need to be grown in agar containing blood! Other common things are things like yeast extract, iron or sulphur.

They even look similar! You see it too, right?


Now that they've been fed and housed, we need to work out where to put the rabbit/bacteria. If you put the rabbit hutch in deep shade all winter, you might have some poor frozen bunnies inside. If you put it in full sun over the summer months, they'll start to cook! Bacteria are very similar. Some are happy at room temperature, some need 37 degrees celsius (our body temperature... this is ideal for human pathogens, so I tend to avoid it in my experiments) and some 'thermophiles' like Geobacillus need temperatures around 60 to 80 degrees! I think the highest growth temperature recorded is around 118 degrees (which is crazy! They can survive being boiled!) in some extremophilic bacteria. And archaea too, which is another microbe kingdom like bacteria and fungi. This is pretty easy to control these days though, there are all manner of fancy incubators that can go up to any temperature your pet rabbit bacteria enjoy!

Some don't mind a bit of heat!


That's pretty much it, to be honest. Different bacteria need different things so it's impossible to describe everything in a short blog post but I did my best! Maybe someday soon we'll be seeing bacteria in a cage at the pet shop... There is a microbe zoo in Amsterdam so it's only a matter of time!


Saturday, 2 April 2016

So who am I then?

I've been doing this blog for a little while now, but haven't really gone into much detail about myself. So who am I? Why do I like friendly bacteria so much? And why am I doing this blog at all?

I'm a twenty three year old PhD student with a microbiology background, in the first year of my PhD. I'm working with a type of friendly bacteria called endophytes, which live in plants and can help them grow and resist disease in exchange for a safe, stable place to live. It's fascinating! It's a bit like the bacteria in your intestines, they don't hurt the plant at all and can even provide good things like hormones and nutrients! I've got a long way to go before I finish but I'm loving it so far so I'm sure it'll fly by.

So why do I like friendly bacteria? Since a young age I've been amazed by the power bacteria have. These tiny creatures so small you can't see them can have huge effects on people, and even the whole world. Just look at the old plagues! The black death killed a huge proportion of the population of the world, but the bacteria behind it (Yersinia pestis) is still much smaller than even one cell of a human. Obviously more than one cell of it was involved, but just as a billion harmless droplets of water can cause flooding and devastation, the huge number of bacteria cause illness and death on a huge scale.
This power the bacteria hold captured my imagination. What if we could use that potential for the benefit of mankind? To continue the water analogy, hydroelectric dams use the power of the water for good, and I wanted to do the same with bacteria. This was before probiotics were popular, and I didn't really know about common uses of microbes like brewing or antibiotic production, but I kept that interest alive as I went on in life, and ended up studying microbiology at degree level. I've done some work in an industrial lab looking at bio ethanol production for fuel, and now I'm here working on my plants!
I realise "using microorganisms to improve higher organisms" sounds very Resident Evil (and I must admit that did help keep my interest in it going) but it's very safe and there's no danger of zombies! Although if it did happen nobody would be worried because I'm in the middle of nowhere and there'd be nobody to bite!

That's who I am, and why I'm doing what I do, but why did I start this blog? I'm really keen to get more science widely known, especially about the 'good bugs' in the world. I feel like a lot of people aren't really told much about bacteria, and microbes in general, so tend to throw up barriers whenever they come up rather than finding out about them. All science affects everybody, so I think having an understanding of how things work would benefit absolutely everyone no matter what they do or where they live worldwide. I already tell my family and friends about awesome, interesting things I find out but I want to spread that around and tell the world!
Whether you're a scientist yourself, or a child in school, or work in retail, an office, in construction, wherever, I want to make awesome scientific developments available, accessible and understandable to everybody!

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Routine but not Mundane

I've not posted a blog post for days! I've been away for the Easter weekend but that's not much of an excuse; I had plenty of time waiting around in the airport or wherever that I could have used to make a post or two. So it's time I set out a solid structure to when I post things, not only to make things a bit more formal and professional but also to stop me procrastinating and leaving everything until tomorrow, then the next day, then the next...

I'm also going to be making more use of my YouTube account! I'll be doing a weekly vlog made of short clips from each day. Hopefully it will help me gain confidence in speaking, something I'm really bad for. Plus in a few years, having a nice record of everything I get up to will be nice for me!
I also want to do a monthly (Or twice monthly) short video, more scientific or instructional/educational, starting by talking about my favourite subject; Friendly Bacteria!

Here's the routine then:

Wednesday - Blog post published at 12pm BST

Saturday - Blog post published at 12pm BST

Sunday - The week's vlog, posted by 6pm BST

This isn't too packed in the week, but is still pretty regular and will hopefully be easy to stick to.
I'm going to schedule this for a 12pm upload tomorrow then! (As it's Tuesday today)

Have a lovely week!

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Chill-out weekend; rockpooling!

I've been really ill for way too long now, but I'm coming out of it! (Fingers crossed) I'm still taking it easy though. Yesterday was really nice out, if a little hazy, so we went for a walk along the beach. The tide was still quite far out so a lot of the rocky reefs were exposed, full of little rock-pools. It was slippery underfoot, with high risk of dipping a foot into the freezing sea (or falling and hitting jagged rocks I guess) but it was worth it; I spotted a spot of pinkish-cream among the black rocks and dark seaweed. I made my way over to it, knelt down to get a closer look and saw that it was a limpet detached from its rock, with the fleshy part facing upwards. It was dead, but the whole Lion King-style circle of life thing was happening right before me; two black spiralled shells (either sea-snails or some sort of whelk, or so I thought) were moving in to feed on the limpet's body. I thought this was cool, so stayed to watch. But to my surprise, little legs emerged from one of the shells, followed by clawed arms and two tiny eye-stalks! It was a little Hermit Crab!

The dead limpet (blue) and the hermit crab (purple). I couldn't tell if the shell on the dead limpet was another crab or just a sea snail. There were other hermit crabs nearby though so I'm thinking a crab.

I was really excited by this development, so I called the others over to have a look (and lend me a phone to take pictures!). The water was freezing but I scooped him up to have a closer look for a second or two. As I expected, he went full-defensive mode and retreated inside his borrowed shell, waving his cute little claws menacingly at me through the opening. I didn't want to disturb him too much though so I popped him back down right where I got him from. He spent thirty seconds or so peering up at me suspiciously, but when he was satisfied that I wouldn't pick him up again he went straight back to chomping limpet.

"Put me down, mammal! I've got a busy day ahead!"

The tide was slowly making its way towards us so we went back up onto the promenade, but it was great to see nature happening right on my doorstep! I love how pretty much anywhere you look in the world, you will find little ecosystems full of fascinating organisms!

Monday, 14 March 2016

ExoMars; Liftoff!

A mission to Mars has launched today, called ExoMars. It's aiming to look for evidence of micro-organisms, which is really exciting!

It'll be doing this by looking at methane on Mars; methane breaks down in sunlight so why is it there? It's either being produced by some kind of chemical reaction between rocks and water, or by biological processes. Most methane on Earth is biological, often created by methanogenic archaea or bacteria, which are found all over the place; the bottom of the sea, deep down in the rocks of the Earth's crust, and even in rumen of cattle. Everyone knows cow burps are bad for the environment, but it's not the cows making the methane; it's bacteria!

So why do bacteria make methane? What's in it for them? They make methane by reducing carbon dioxide with hydrogen. This enables the cell to produce ATP, the same thing all cells (from bacterial to human cells) use to provide energy for all the chemical reactions they need to do. So instead of using oxygen like us (or like anaerobic bacteria) they use CO2 and make methane!

Could they be found on Mars? Yes! The conditions there would definitely support species like those found here on Earth (but obviously evolved for Martian conditions rather than Earth's), especially the extremophilic archaea and rock-dwelling organisms. If they are found there, it will create more exciting questions like are they related to life on Earth? Or did they come from a separate origin of life? Whatever happens, it will lead to really interesting missions and science in the years and decades to come. It's a really exciting time to be alive! (And to be a microbiologist!) I'll be spending the next few years eagerly awaiting the results of this mission! Good Luck team ExoMars!

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Murmuration of Starlings (and flu-based incapacitation)





I had all sorts of blog and video related plans for this weekend buuuut I came down with the 'flu so have spent it in bed (apart from a trip to the orchestra, that was awesome).



This video is one I took on thursday evening down on the beach! It's of a massive flock of starlings, I've never seen it so big! They always fly around over Aberystwyth, and before sunset do these huge murmurations over the pier before flying under there to roost for the night. It's a gorgeous sight to see, especially on a day like thursday when the sunset is beautiful too!



I'm coming back out of this illness now so will hopefully be back to blogging and stuff soon. Plus I have plans for little videos about things which is exciting!

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

International Women's Day; Female Scientists (especially Dr Kathleen Carpenter)

Last night I attended a talk on a pioneer of freshwater ecology, Dr Kathleen Carpenter (Given by Dr Catherine Duigan). I was primarily interested in the freshwater ecology bit going into the lecture, but was absolutely fascinated by the whole scope of the lecture. I'm so used to hearing about the scientific life of the famous scientists that it was both refreshing and extremely interesting to hear about the more personal side of her research. Not just what samples she took and what she found, but how social constrictions on things like what she could wear impacted on her science; collecting aquatic samples gets a whole lot more challenging when you're wearing a full-length dress (I imagine. I've never tried, myself). Hearing about how Dr Carpenter rose up in spite of the male-centred environment to become really one of the defining figures (and key founders) in her field, and the phenomenal successes she achieved right from when she was a PhD student ("Just like me!" I thought) through to being a really well-thought-of professor of international renown, was hugely, hugely inspirational.

If you want to learn more, head over to this FreshWaterBlog post to read all about Kathleen Carpenter from Dr Duigan herself!

Today is International Women's Day, and the talk last night was part of my university's week-long program of events celebrating it, in particular Women in Academia (especially STEM fields). I've been really lucky across my academic career in terms of meeting and working with some excellent female scientists. My work placement supervisor, undergraduate personal tutor and my current PhD supervisor are all female, and all really powerful scientific figures in their own right. I know that I'm not really ordinary in that respect, as many fields and research groups are very male-dominated, but it is still strange for me to think of cases like Kathleen Carpenter's life where her being a woman made things more difficult professionally. However, me finding things strange doesn't make them go away, nor does it diminish them; women are still pretty massively under-represented in academic circles. For instance, I learnt recently that at my institution (Aberystwyth University), there are more Professors called 'Michael' on the staff than the total number of female Professors. No matter which way you look at it, that's not equal, that's not 'fair'. I don't know about a lot of aspects of life, but I do know science; and I can truthfully say that in my experience there is no aspect of scientific research where one gender is 'better' than the other, so the fact that things are so unbalanced in general definitely shows that it's a situation that can be amended rather than being some 'fact of life'.

How's that going to happen? I think that motivation is a big factor, motivation to go down the path of an academic, of a scientist. And hearing talks like last night's, talks by influential female scientists about other influential female scientists, definitely help motivate people. I myself definitely felt deeply inspired by Kathleen Carpenter's story, and I'm sure that with the efforts of Dr Duigan and others like her, more and more people can be inspired by the important tales of Dr Carpenter and others just like her. I'm really glad that International Women's Day brought this talk into my life.

Happy International Women's Day! (Both remaining minutes of it, I left this a bit late. Oops!)

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Night Sky on the Epynt

I'm visiting my folks for the weekend, and took advantage of the weirdly non-cloudy weather tonight to drive off into the middle of Wales to a scenic overlook on the edge of The Epynt, a massive MoD training place (we mere civvies are allowed on the footpaths and roads around the edge) with no streetlights anywhere. It was really dark, and kind of a spooky drive with sheep-eyes reflecting the headlights from the bushes and the odd band of soldiers on exercise or whatever looming out of the darkness, but good grief it was more than worth it. There was no moon, only a few distant lights on in various farmhouses, and the smallest amount of cloud cover Wales has ever seen. Conditions were absolutely perfect for stargazing.

For Valentine's day I was given a really cool little book giving a month-by-month guide to the stars and planets and stuff. The only problem was, the visibility was so good that it was hard to see the regular constellations among all the little background-stars normally invisible behind all the light pollution! We could make out a whole load of different ones though, Leo, Orion, Canis Major, the Pleiades, and The big shiny Jupiter! (To name but a few! Seriously, there were all the stars, it was breathtaking)

My girlfriend said "I thought I'd seen the stars before. I hadn't!" I don't think it could be said more perfectly.

Go see it, find some remote dark spot, wrap up warm (warmer than I  did, I still can't really feel my feet) and sit out there soaking it all in. All we did was drive for a bit then stand by the car looking at the sky, but it was definitely one of the best things I've ever done. I'll definitely be doing it again soon!

No, I don't have a picture, my camera wasn't charged and my phone wouldn't have come close to doing it justice. I don't think any picture can. Go see it. Go on. Off you go.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

World Book Day: Bacterionomicon

Today's World Book Day! To celebrate, I thought I'd write about my favourite bacteria-related book. It's not a textbook or medical guide, but the absolutely fantastic 'Bacterionomicon', produced by NerdcoreMedical.

What is it? It sounds like some kind of old-school medieval magical bestiary for Bacteria!

... Yep. That's pretty much what it is. And it's glorious.

The Bacterionomicon describes 40-odd species of pathogens as if they were fantastical beasts in a magical land called Soma, and the apothecaries of the healing blade (representing antibiotics). The descriptions are dramatic and exciting, but still actually really accurate medically too! There are different areas of Soma that represent parts of the body (like the 'Faecal Inlet'... lovely), and in the bestiary it says where each monster lives.

Listeria monocytogenes (I didn't make this, the authors of the book did! All credit goes to NerdcoreMedical. If I'm not allowed to have this picture here I'm happy to take it down)

It's not just fun to read, (or say out loud for that matter... Bacterionomicon...mmmm) the illustrations are beautiful to look at. Take a look at the one for Listeria monocytogenes, the one I blogged about the other day. It looks fearsome! The whole book is just packed with fantastic drawings.

There's also an awesome-looking card game called 'Healing Blade: Defenders of Soma' in the works that goes with it that I can't wait to try! It's not out yet but as soon as pay-day comes around I'll be pre-ordering a copy!

I don't know what else to say about it, I'm no book-reviewer, but if you like bacteria and are pretty nerdy, (i.e. someone like me!) then I'd definitely recommend it!

Don't just take my word for it, here are links for you to peruse:

http://nerdcoremedical.com/
http://bacterionomicon.com/

(I'm not affiliated with NerdcoreMedical in any way, I just think they're totally awesome)

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Buttery Listeria

Tesco have recalled a load of their butter today, after they found listeria in some. But what's listeria? Should we be worried? And why is 'chocolate chip and maple syrup butter' a thing?

Listeria is a bacteria (that's why I'm talking about it!)  called Listeria monocytogenes. It's important (and worth worrying about/recalling weirdly flavoured butter over) for two key reasons: firstly, it loves the cold. This bug can happily grow in your fridge! Stopping bacteria grow is the whole point of fridges so listeria just makes a mockery of that. If it's growing, the number of bacteria goes up and up increasing the chances of getting ill if you eat it. So how ill does it make you? It normally just causes flu-like symptoms (in fact, there's a high chance you've had it but thought it was just the flu) but the second key reason it's important is a secondary effect: listeria can cause miscarriage. This is the reason you're supposed to avoid dairy stuff when pregnant (especially un-pasteurised cheeses like that fancy smelly french one you've got tucked away in the fridge). It does that to animals too; if a breeding herd of cows get fed contaminated food, they all get ill at once resulting in an 'abortion storm', which is pretty high up on my list of horrible phrases (right beside de-gloving accident) and obviously results in farmers losing animals and money, not to mention how it affects the poor cows.

I don't want to freak you out or make you stop eating cheese or whatever though (unless you're pregnant). All dairy food is tested constantly for all sorts of bacteria, and the tests for listeria are some of the most important. Any tiny amount of listeria in any product is always treated really seriously: while Tesco are losing out on the apparently lucrative flavoured-butter profits, the alternative is much, much worse. As a result of this, even when there's a scare like today's one you're pretty safe. Yes, listeria is one to avoid, but don't let the thought of it ruin your day!

It's not all bad though; listeria is being used in experiments looking at using it to treat cancer! It's really clever: normally our immune system recognises cancer cells as being our own cells, so leave them alone. But these researchers are modifying listeria cells to show markers for the cancer cells as well as their own (and to make them not cause disease obviously). When introduced to the body, the immune system looks at these modified listeria and starts associating them with the cancer cells. So the immune system starts thinking the cancer cells are listeria, and attacks them! Re-wiring the person's immune system to fight the cancer from within. This is still very much in the experimental phase, but it's a really exciting idea that I think is pretty promising! Plus it's a way that bacteria are being used for good (you can't get much more 'good' than fighting cancer) which I'm really enthused by and passionate about.


Edgar the Friendly Bacteria


I wanted to set up a profile picture to use with this blog, the YouTube channel and the Twitter page (which I'm still setting up, watch this space!) So I sat down last night and drew something for it. I wanted a bacteria, but not a scary gribbly one like in so many stock cartoons. I also wanted to keep it sciency so put him in a lab coat! I thought three eyes, in the layout of the biohazard symbol, would be weird enough to suit a bacteria but drew them to be cute(ish) and nice-looking so he still has a warm, friendly feel.
I initially drew it just with pencil on a spare bit of paper, then scanned it in with my phone. I use GIMP for image editing, and turned it from pencil lines to black outlines. From there, I played around with colour gradients and patterns and stuff, leading to the finished little avatar I'm using now!
I find it really fun just messing around drawing things. Once various things arrive from Mr Amazon, I'll incorporate that into some videos I'm planning! Exciting.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Field Trip: Red Kite feeding site


I went out to the local Red Kite feeding station today. As you can see, there were hundreds of them! Red Kites are some of my favourite birds, it's always great to see them flying overhead. From a distance it's hard to tell them apart from other birds of prey like Buzzards, but if you look at their tails then you'll see a lovely forked tail on a Kite. They were once almost hunted to extinction in the UK but programs like the one I went to today have helped them recover, to the point that now they are a pretty common site in Wales (and elsewhere in the UK too). They're normally pretty solitary animals, characteristically of a raptor, but the daily feeds at Bwlch Nant Yr Arian bring unusually large flocks together. I've been a few times before but today's was by far the largest group I've seen yet; it was really impressive!

They're being fed raw meat, supplied by local butchers. Red Kites are happy eating carrion so are often seen flying over roads looking for roadkill. Crows, too, feed on dead meat and it is quite common to see a few crows trying to chase a Kite out of their territory. Today though, the crows were outnumbered by far! They can still be heard pretty clearly in the video (the loud cawing) but the piercing cry of the Kites can be heard too.

I always find it fascinating how they rarely seem to flap their wings while circling; they use thermal currents, and rises of air created by the mountains to stay flying without using any real effort. They circle above the feeding area, waiting for someone to be brave enough to swoop down to get some meat. They're big, powerful and (here) in large numbers but they're still very timid. Once one of them moves to get food they all follow suit, taking advantage of the classic 'safety in numbers' strategy often seen throughout the natural world.