Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Air Zoo

This story made me smile when I saw it on the news today. No, it’s not your typical New York street trash but a clever idea sparked by fine arts student, Joshua Harris. The creator of Air Zoo, Harris, had the idea of bringing nature back into the city. Normally lying motionless and limp, the constructed garbage bag animals are suddenly injected with life and vigour as air from the underground subway rushes up through street air vents changing the street-scape and giving passers by something light-hearted and entertaining to gaze upon. Once the train has passed, the animals collapse into a random and lifeless heap until the next train is due. His first garbage bag animal creation was a white polar bear (see YouTube video). Only a few days ago, he displayed a 6-foot giraffe. His idea has been received positively by passers-by.


Micro-organisms munching on antibiotics

Recent and alarming news from the world of microbiology is the finding that bacteria are able to utilise antibiotics as their sole carbon source. On top of the pre-existing problem of antibiotic resistance in medicine, this study has been widely publicised and given much hype due to the potential of antibiotic resistance becoming much more prevalent. Although the phenomenon of bacteria thriving on antibiotics has been previously reported in the medical literature, the cases were limited to a small number of micro-organisms and antibiotics. This study is the first of its kind to establish the level of resistance amongst a wide range of micro-organisms.

Methods: The researchers examined 18 different antibiotics ranging from natural, semi-synthetic to synthetic which could target a wide range of bacterial families and included ciprofloxacin, penicillin and kanamycin which are some of the more commonly prescribed antibiotics in medicine. Seventy-five bacterial samples were isolated from 11 diverse soil samples ranging from farm soil (cornfields fertilised with manure from cows fed with antibiotics), urban soil and pristine soil (untouched forest areas). This method ensured that the bacteria were isolated from areas with varying degrees of exposure to human-made antibiotics. More than half of the samples included bacteria from the phylogenetic order of Burkholderiales and Pseudomonadales, both capable of inflicting disease in humans. Two antibiotic concentrations (20 mg/L and 1 g/L) were tested with one concentration (1 g/L) being 50 times greater than standard antibiotic resistance concentrations.

Some of the alarming results: As there was no break-down on which phylogenetic order each of the 75 individual samples came from, the results when examined as a whole showed that 32 of the 75 bacterial samples (42%) were resistant to almost 100% of the antibiotics at 1 g/L and 17 of the 75 bacterial samples (22%) were resistant to over 50% of the antibiotics at 1 g/L. Ciprofloxacin, penicillin and kanamycin at 1 g/L, which get notable mentions for their widespread use in medicine, had 34, 73 and 54 of the 75 bacterial samples, respectively, come up resistant.

The findings of this study are a cause for concern because: (1) the wide range of bacterial families examined are closely related to clinically-relevant bacteria and (2) the antibiotic classes examined are commonly used in medicine and the occurrence of lateral transfer of genes between distantly related bacteria is highly possible which could potentially lead to greater levels of antibiotic resistance. Although disconcerting, these findings remind us of the capabilities of these microscopic organisms that go unnoticed and consequences when antibiotics are misused.

(1) Dantas G. et al. (2008) Bacteria Subsisting on Antibiotics. Science. 320: p100-103.
(2) Leslie M. (2008) Germs Take a Bite Out of Antibiotics. Science. 320: p 33.

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Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Acts of God?

Earlier today, I was reading through the ‘terms and conditions’ of a competition I was about to enter and as I skim read through the standard wording I came across the following:

In the case of the intervention of any outside agent or event which naturally changes the result or prevents or hinders its determination, including but not limited to vandalism, power failures, tempests, natural disasters, acts of God, civil unrest, strikes; the Promoter may in its absolute discretion cancel the competition and recommence it from the start on the same conditions.“

I have never come across “acts of God” in the wording for terms and conditions of any competition I have ever entered. Is this a common occurrence? Can this clause be used in the legal system or is this a huge misinterpretation on my part? I'm not an atheist and I don’t mean to offend anyone but I find this unusual and almost comical in this context.