The Department of Extraordinary Embroidery is delighted to present further proof that Science + Art = Awesome. Plainville, CT-based artist Alicia Watkins creates cross-stitch illustrations of bacteria, germs, viruses and microbes. Ordinarily you wouldn’t want to come into contact with any of these microscopic beasties, but these embroidered versions are 100% delightful instead of infectious.

Watkins sells her sciencetastic needlework via her Etsy shop, Watty’s Wall Stuff and Cross Stitchery. Head over there to check out many more examples of her crafty geekery, including lots of cross-stitch patterns and kits.

[via Colossal]


Fragile Viruses

Viruses are scary enough as small micro-organisms that we cannot see with the naked eye, but artist Luke Jerram takes these deadly microscopic agents, and blows them up, literally, as glass sculptures.

Instead of the usual cartoons found in textbooks, these viruses can be examined from various angles, to understand their structures better. Great detail is put into each piece, making the glass sculptures practically exact replicas. Aesthetically, the work is beautiful, and few would even know that what they are admiring are the structures of an HIV virus, E. coli or even Smallpox

The sculptures allow viewers to better understand, or at least to finally see for themselves, what attacks their immune (or other) systems, and especially what causes them to be sick. Of course, this does not mean that it will be easier to fight a virus if you know what it looks like, but for science, the sculptures are a great learning tool to understand the virus’ structures, and possibly even to recognize them better when looking under a microscope.

-Anna Paluch

Huge Viruses Are Shaking Up The Tree of Life

Pandoraviruses are challenging some long-held biological beliefs. These newly-discovered beasts are larger, in size and in genetic complexity, than any other virus that we know of (details on the graphic are below). They are not as doom-worthy as their name implies, but they may have opened a box full of new biological forms that will challenge what we think of when we say “alive” or “virus”. For the scientific low-down on pandoraviruses, check out this great article by Carl Zimmer.

Giant viruses of all kinds seem to be more common than we’ve ever imagined. It makes sense, in a way. Just like there is not a clear transition point between any two species, the complexity of life should also exist on a continuum from the small (bacterial viruses) to the complex (us). So maybe these little guys aren’t so surprising after all?

I drew up a little graphic (above) to show just how large and complex pandoraviruses are compared to other life forms. 

  • Pandoraviruses are huge. A human egg cell is about 100 millionths of a meter across. An E. coli is about 50 times smaller. But pandoraviruses (which dwarf flu viruses) are nearly as big as the bacterium! 
  • The area of the circles show how many genes each type of cell contains. The human genome has about 20,000 genes, while E. coli has about 4,500. Compared to a measly 13 genes in the flu virus, pandoraviruses have about 2,500!, almost none of which seem to be related to known genes.
  • The size of the genome, in bases, is where it gets weird. The human egg’s genome, at 3 billion bases, dwarfs them all. E. coli and pandoraviruses have around 4 and 2 million, respectively. And there’s a tiny little single pixel in there representing the 13,588 letters of the influenza genome.

I can’t wait to see what other kinds of life/not life we find inside this Pandora’s box.

Viruses can spread through the air in two ways: inside large droplets that fall quickly to the ground (red), or inside tiny droplets that float in the air (gray). In the first route, called droplet transmission, the virus can spread only about 3 to 6 feet from an infected person. In the second route, called airborne transmission, the virus can travel 30 feet or more.

Ebola In The Air: What Science Says About How The Virus Spreads

Illustration credit: Adam Cole/NPR

Viruses Reconsidered

"The discovery of more and more viruses of record-breaking size calls for a reclassification of life on Earth."

The theory of evolution was first proposed based on visual observations of animals and plants. Then, in the latter half of the 19th century, the invention of the modern optical microscope helped scientists begin to systematically explore the vast world of previously invisible organisms, dubbed “microbes” by the late, great Louis Pasteur, and led to a rethinking of the classification of living things.

In the mid-1970s, based on the analysis of the ribosomal genes of these organisms, Carl Woese and others proposed a classification that divided living organisms into three domains: eukaryotes, bacteria, and archaea. (See “Discovering Archaea, 1977,” The Scientist, March 2014) Even though viruses were by that time visible using electron microscopes, they were left off the tree of life because they did not possess the ribosomal genes typically used in phylogenetic analyses. And viruses are still largely considered to be nonliving biomolecules—a characterization spurred, in part, by the work of 1946 Nobel laureate Wendell Meredith Stanley, who in 1935 succeeded in crystallizing the tobacco mosaic virus. Even after crystallization, the virus maintained its biological properties, such as its ability to infect cells, suggesting to Stanley that the virus could not be truly alive.

Recently, however, the discovery of numerous giant virus species—with dimensions and genome sizes that rival those of many microbes—has challenged these views. In 2003, my colleagues and I announced the discovery of Mimivirus, a parasite of amoebae that researchers had for years considered a bacterium. With a diameter of 0.4 micrometers (μm) and a 1.2-megabase-pair DNA genome, the virus defied the predominant notion that viruses could never exceed 0.2 μm. Since then, a number of other startlingly large viruses have been discovered, most recently two Pandoraviruses in July 2013, also inside amoebas. Those viruses harbor genomes of 1.9 million and 2.5 million bases, and for more than 15 years had been considered parasitic eukaryotes that infected amoebas.

Now, with the advent of whole-genome sequencing, researchers are beginning to realize that most organisms are in fact chimeras containing genes from many different sources—eukaryotic, prokaryotic, and viral alike—leading us to rethink evolution, especially the extent of gene flow between the visible and microscopic worlds. Genomic analysis has, for example, suggested that eukaryotes are the result of ancient interactions between bacteria and archaea. In this context, viruses are becoming more widely recognized as shuttles of genetic material, with metagenomic studies suggesting that the billions of viruses on Earth harbor more genetic information than the rest of the living world combined. These studies point to viruses being at least as critical in the evolution of life as all the other organisms on Earth.

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Mystery surrounding millions of sea star deaths on B.C. coast solved

Scientists have cracked the mystery of what has killed millions of sea stars in waters off the Pacific coast, from British Columbia to Mexico.

Microbiology Prof. Ian Hewson of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said the culprit is densovirus, commonly found in invertebrates.

He said the virus literally made what are commonly called star fish dissolve within two to 10 days after infection, leaving them in a pile of goo on the ocean floor.

Hewson is the lead author of a study along with Ben Miner of Western Washington University that was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

He said the wasting disease hit about 18 months ago, at a time when the number of sea stars inexplicably exploded.

Most viruses in nature are common and help keep dominant species in check, but he said divers reported seeing mountains of sea stars in the ocean around the time mass mortalities started occurring.

"This very high number of sea stars in the Pacific Northwest leading up to this disease epidemic probably is what exacerbated the virus and made the switch between something relatively benign into something that was totally virulent," Hewson said.

Continue Reading.


This is what happened when I searched “nightmare” on Facebook after an anonymous tip

This is what happened when I searched the word “nightmare” under “places” on Facebook after an anonymous tip. As of now, I’m guessing that this is just a mass emailing virus. Still, it’s pretty creepy. If any of you have had similar emails, or messages, please let me know.


Your daily dose of Myoviridae TEM images:

Here’s a nice picture of some Myoviridae phage which infect Salmonella. Generally in the phage world, there are three more common families although others have been found:

  • Siphoviridae with long flexible tails. (P2 above)
  • Myoviridae with long contractile tails (T4 above)
  • Podoviridae with short non-contractile tails. (P22 above)

Phage are first classified based on their morphologies, but bioinformatic information shows the relationships between the families. Typically families of phage are grouped on their appearance as a large amount of the phage genome goes into making the structural proteins.

Myoviridae are quite interesting in the sense that when they bind their host, there are large visible structural changes in the tail region. The tail sheath contracts and the DNA is transported from the head into the bacterium. Other less visible mechanisms are present in the other two morphology types too.


Today’s ‪#‎TBT‬ is both a throwback and and a current news item: The measles, one of the most infectious viruses on the planet, is making a comeback in the United States. This comeback has kickstarted a nationwide discussion (and, in some cases, debate) - another comeback, one might say - on the importance of vaccination. 

As anybody with a newspaper subscription, television, or even Facebook account is aware, the current measles outbreak started in California (at the happiest place on Earth, adding insult to injury!) and continues to spread, with the CDC adding 18 new cases a day to their official outbreak tally. As of just three days ago (!), 102 people in 14 states were infected with the virus. 

According to an article, “Of the 34 people for whom the California Department of Public Health had vaccination records, only five had received both doses of the measles vaccine, according to the department. One received just the first dose. Nationally, officials are seeing the same trend, Schuchat said last week. ‘This is not a problem with the measles vaccine not working,” she said. “This is a problem of the measles vaccine not being used.’”

Vaccine denial may have been an easy conclusion to come to before, but following this outbreak, it’s become apparent just how dangerous this conclusion can be. However, a new study shows trying to convince those few remaining deniers might make things worse. From the article: “The paper tested the effectiveness of four separate pro-vaccine messages, three of which were based very closely on how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) itself talks about vaccines. The results can only be called grim: Not a single one of the messages was successful when it came to increasing parents’ professed intent to vaccinate their children. And in several cases the messages actually backfired, either increasing the ill-founded belief that vaccines cause autism or even, in one case, apparently reducing parents’ intent to vaccinate.”

Click the links interspersed above for further reading, and stay tuned for a (very belated, and long overdue) Disease Spotlight of the Week on…you guessed it: Measles.

If you live in the US, you might have heard that the flu vaccine released this year is not a “good match” for the viruses going around. How could this have happened?

Influenza viruses have proteins on their surfaces that the immune system can recognize. Two of these proteins are called hemagglutinin (HA, shown in the graphic above) and neuraminidase (NA), which are the “H” and “N” found in the virus names. One of the reasons why flu viruses are so successful is because they can easily mutate and change the structure of these proteins. Here are two ways in which these mutations can happen:

  • Antigenetic drift: Errors occur in genes when they are being copied to make new viruses. This is common for flu virus genes because they are made of RNA, not DNA. The virus’ host cells have mechanisms to fix errors in DNA but they cannot fix RNA.
  • Antigenetic shift: Different subtypes of the same virus infect the same host cell and mix and match their genes to make a new virus. This happens often with flu viruses because of their ability to jump species. A flu virus that mostly infects birds may be able to infect a human cell and mix its genetic information with a flu virus that mostly infects humans, producing a new subtype of virus.

Many of the H3N2 viruses circulating this season have undergone drift. Their antigens have become different from the H3N2 strain (dubbed A/Texas/50/2012) that researchers predicted would be most common. Because it takes about six months to develop and release a flu vaccine, researchers have to start early, drawing up a projection from data reported to the World Health Organization from 111 different countries. Sometimes the viruses will undergo changes during those six months, causing the vaccine to be less effective.

So should you still get the flu vaccine? Yes! Even though the H3N2 viruses’ surface proteins have changed, there is still a good chance that the H3N2 virus parts in the vaccine are similar enough to them that the vaccine can help teach the immune system to respond to them. There are also other two other viruses included in the vaccine that it can help protect you from.

The CDC has a nifty little vaccination pledge you can fill out if you have gotten the vaccine or are ready to get it.

You can read more about the flu vaccine, its safety and why it’s so important here.