human-fundamental concepts aliens might lack:

  • praise and/or disparagement
  • linear time
  • language
  • culture
  • narrative
  • etiquette
  • hierarchy

for the past few years i’ve been hearing about how the bacteria in our intestines can influence our mental health.  if we can be influenced so much by a few microbes, how incomprehensibly different from us might a silicon-based life form be?  how far outside our realms of experience might such creatures live?  does any human culture on this earth possess the language required to articulate it?  are our brains even capable of comprehending it? 


Rebecca is back with lots of new and exciting books in her mailbag to share.

Books Mentioned
Swing Time by Zadie Smith http://amzn.to/2aeDBLO
Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault by Cary Fowler, Mari Tefre, Jim Richardson, Peter Crane  http://amzn.to/2ahjSc1
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole http://amzn.to/2a4DW0C
Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson http://amzn.to/2ah2fvQ
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong http://amzn.to/2ampF3G
Mostly Void, Partially Stars: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 1 by Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor http://amzn.to/2a4EBPK
The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 2 by Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor http://amzn.to/2a4EDak

New antibiotic found in human nose

You may have heard about drugs disappearing into people’s noses. But at a meeting here this week and in a new paper, scientists presented the opposite: A new antibiotic that has, quite literally, emerged from the human nose. The compound is produced by one species of nose-dwelling bacterium to kill another microbe, which kills thousands of people every year.

The study is “yet another demonstration that we should look to nature for solutions to the problems nature throws at us,” says Andrew Read, an evolutionary biologist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, who was not involved with the work.

Any new antibiotic is welcome because the world is running out of these life-saving drugs. But the researchers behind the new finding believe that studying the microbial warfare going on inside our bodies may lead to not just one, but a whole slew of novel drugs. “We’ve found a new concept of finding antibiotics,” Andreas Peschel, a bacteriologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, said on Tuesday at the EuroScience Open Forum, a biennial science and policy meeting. “We have preliminiary evidence at least in the nose that there is a rich source of many others, and I’m sure that we will find new drugs there.”

Microbial communities provide humans and other species with tangible and sometimes even delicious benefits. Microbes make up a major fraction of the biomass on Earth and play a critical role within the global ecosystem that supports all larger organisms, including us. They produce much of the oxygen we breathe, and are recruited to clean up environmental pollution like oil spills, or to treat our wastewater. Not to mention, biofilms are normal and flavor-enhancing parts of many of the foods we enjoy, including cheese, salami and Kombucha.

Bon appetit!

From the TED-Ed Lesson The microbial jungles all over the place (and you) - Scott Chimileski and Roberto Kolter

Animation by Qa'ed Mai

Hurry! The exhibition, The Secret World Inside You, closes August 14, 2016. This immersive exhibit explores the rapidly evolving science that is revealing the complexities of the human microbiome and reshaping our ideas about human health, offering new perspectives on common health problems.

  • Your body is home to trillions and trillions of individual bacteria, more than all the stars in the Milky Way.
  • These microbes are so tiny that billions can live in a drop of water.
  • Together the microbes inside you weigh about as much as your brain.
  • These microbes work so closely with our cells that we depend on each other for survival.
  • Most microbes that live in your body aren’t harmful. They help your digestive system, immune system and brain work properly.
  • You’re not just an individual, you’re an ecosystem, and learning to work with our microbes is creating a revolution in human health.

Take a look at the exhibition and get your tickets today!

Algae are melting away the Greenland ice sheet

Researchers are fanning out across the Greenland ice sheet this month to explore a crucial, but overlooked, influence on its future: red, green and brown-coloured algal blooms. These darken the snow and ice, causing it to absorb more sunlight and melt faster.

The £3-million (US$4-million) Black and Bloom project aims to measure how algae are changing how much sunlight Greenland’s ice sheet bounces back into space. “We want to get a handle on just how much of the darkness is due to microbes and how much to other physical factors”, such as soot or mineral dust, says Martyn Tranter, a biogeochemist at the University of Bristol, UK, and the project’s principal investigator.

Team scientists arrived near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, this week for 6 weeks of observations. The work will continue for two more summers, exploring different parts of the ice sheet. Ultimately, the scientists hope to develop the first deep understanding of  how biological processes affect Greenland’s reflectivity.

From these results, climate modellers should be able to improve their estimates of how the ice sheet  —  which contains enough water to raise sea levels by seven metres — is likely to melt in the coming decades. The past several years, as well as the current one, have seen temperature and melting records set across Greenland.

Algae that live on snow and ice produce a kaleidoscope of colours. Jason Edwards/NGC

Do microbes live in communities?

As we walk through our daily environments, we’re surrounded by exotic creatures that are too small to see with the naked eye. We usually imagine these microscopic organisms, or microbes, as asocial cells that float around by themselves. But, in-reality, microbes gather by the millions to form vast communities known as biofilms.

Natural biofilms are like miniature jungles filled with many kinds of microbes from across the web of life. Bacteria and archaea mingle with other microbes like algae, fungi, and protozoa, forming dense, organized structures that grow on almost any surface. When you pad across a river bottom, touch the rind of an aged cheese, tend your garden soil, or brush your teeth, you’re coming into contact with these invisible ecosystems.

But why do microbes build such complex communities, when they could live alone? For one thing, microbes living in a biofilm are rooted in a relatively stable microenvironment where they may have access to a nutrient source. There’s also safety in numbers. Out in the deep, dark wilderness of the microbial world, isolated microbes face serious risks. Predators want to eat them, immune systems seek to destroy them, and there are physical dangers too—like running out of water and drying up. However, in a biofilm, the extracellular matrix shields microbes from external threats.

Biofilms also enable interactions between individual cells. When microbes are packed against each other in close proximity, they can communicate, exchange genetic information, and engage in cooperative and competitive social behaviors.  

So the next time you brush your teeth, bite into that cheese rind, sift through garden soil, or skip a river stone, look as close as you can … imagine the microbial jungles all around you … waiting to be discovered and explored.

From the TED-Ed Lesson The microbial jungles all over the place (and you) - Scott Chimileski and Roberto Kolter

Animation by Qa'ed Mai

Tiny microbe turns tropical butterfly into male killer, scientists discover
"It appears that the butterfly's susceptibility to the male-killing microbe is driving the separation of the two butterflies into two true species.

A scientist from the University of Exeter has helped to identify a male-killing microbe in a tropical butterfly called the African Queen, which leads to the death of all sons when a mother is infected.

In most of Africa this microbe, called Spiroplasma, infects African Queen butterflies but has no effect on their offspring. However, in a narrow zone around Nairobi in Kenya, where two sub species of butterfly live and breed, the scientists noted that the microbe infection caused all their sons to die. In fact the male eggs never hatch and are often consumed by their hungry sisters.

The authors of the paper, published in the Royal Society journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, believe that the phenomenon, which takes place where two sub species meet, is the first step in the transition of the two sub-species into two true, non-interbreeding, species.

Professor Richard ffrench-Constant, from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus, and a team of British, Kenyan and German scientists, have found that the chromosomes of the females in which male-killing occurs have changed dramatically with a non sex chromosome fusing with a sex chromosome to form a new chromosome called ‘neo W’.

Professor ffrench-Constant, Professor of Molecular Natural History, said: “We tend to think of new species coming about due to environmental changes but here its clearly the microbe that is driving these two sub species apart.

Continue Reading.

This week’s episode of @wnyc‘s Only Human podcast asks, when it comes to germs, which of them will actually make us sick — and which won’t? Host Mary Harris went on an urban safari with Museum microbiologist and curator of the Secret World Inside You exhibition Susan Perkins to get the truth about the microbes around us. Here are some quick facts from the podcast about the microbes around us:

Public Restroom

Studies of the microbes in public bathrooms have found an extraordinary diversity. Bathrooms have more kinds of bacteria than there are kinds of birds in North America!


Believe it or not, a subway pole is not a very hospitable place for microbes to live. The metal may have some microbial material on it, but those little guys are likely not alive.

Garbage on the Sidewalk

While smelly, breathing in that air doesn’t mean you’re breathing in those microbes. You’re just breathing in microbe farts!

Listen to the Only Human broadcast. 


Root Down is a small batch one-off Ginger Beer (brewed with ginger and Bee balm leaves) in the Welly one-off series. Sampled on draught, the beer poured clear orange-golden amber with a small white head. The nose and the flavour are both very ginger forward. The ginger is on the sweet side and less the heat side, there is no burn as it slips down your throat – reminds me at first of ginger ale. Subtly hidden behind all the ginger are a nice sweet malt and some other spicy notes. The taste is smoother than expected, but is not a session beer (as advertised) for me. I would have been better off with a half pint, as I began to find the ginger a little cloying as the beer warmed. The carbonation was lively and the body was medium. Pleasant drinking, worth a try.

5% from Guelph, Ontario

What are gut bacteria doing in critically ill lungs? New discovery could change ICU care

No one knows for sure how they got there. But the discovery that bacteria that normally live in the gut can be detected in the lungs of critically ill people and animals could mean a lot for intensive care patients.

Today, scientists are reporting that they found gut bacteria in the deepest reaches of failing lungs – an environment where they normally aren’t found and can’t survive. The more severe the patients’ critical illness, the more their usual lung bacteria were outnumbered by the misplaced gut bugs.

The findings, published in Nature Microbiology, were made by a team at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Their conclusion: critical illness involving the lungs has more to do with disruptions to the body’s natural population of microbes, or microbiome, than previously thought.

Reference: Nature Microbiology, 10.1038/nmicrobiol.2016.113

Caption: The new findings suggest that a cycle of microbiome disruption, inflammation and tissue injury may be involved in critical illness involving the lungs. Credit: University of Michigan

  • <p/><b>Me:</b> </b> But how do translator microbes work? Clearly they don't just...auto-translate. I mean, Aeryn and Dhargo both mispronounce English phrases so they have to be actually hearing the English being spoken. Are they like subtitles in your brain? How do the microbes translate something like "duck" or any other manner of Earth-specific things? Do the aliens hear the word duck and have no fucking clue what a duck is? Would they get the gist that Crichton is talking about-an animal? Or is that based in context clues? But then how do the microbes translate anything considering language is so context dependent? And what about slang and cursing? Why is, for example, frell left untranslated, beyond the whole censorship thing? What about arn or microt? For that matter since babies are injected at a young age do they just automatically understand language around them? I mean no one probably understands them because most baby talk is just random phonemes and sounds and junk, but like do babies acquire language skills quicker because of the microbes? What about Pilot's language makes it so complex that the microbes just shut down and don't work? Also, how the frell do the microbes know English, considering no one has been to Earth ever? Or that random planet in season one that had never seen aliens? How did they understand Crichton? What about hypothetical species that don't communicate vocally? Or nonverbal cues like body language or pheromones? Are the microbes specifically and solely aural?<p/><b>My Paternal Unit:</b> You're overthinking this.<p/><b>Me:</b> ...<p/><b>Me:</b> ...have you met me?<p/></p><p/></p>

My new tablet pen came in! Let’s celebrate with the amazing, split-able MICRO’NI !

Micro’ni are adorable microscopic creatures than can grow to about the size of a mouse with enough water. What looks like whisker’s on these cat-like microbes are actually flagella, and can grip and hold things as well as their 6 arms. The most amazing trait of the Micro’ni is their ability to split into two– except the two are not identical!! When a Micro’ni splits, the new creature will have 50% of the traits of the original and 50% new, random traits! In this way, new rare and fun traits are always being discovered.

You can adopt these 2-star rarity Micro’ni for 10 dollars! And once you own them, you can pay to have them split and get a brand new Micro’ni with 50% of the original traits and 50% random traits. If you’re lucky, you can get some rare and amazing traits. Splitting these Micro’ni only costs $6! 

Micro’ni are a closed species and ownership is first-come first-serve. If you are interested, please contact me and I’ll send you payment information.

Look how cuuuuute! 

Sorry I haven’t been here for a bit. I got laid off, then “re-hired” as a contractor (though that’s illegal for companies to do that now, but I won’t be the one being sued), then went away for a week to a conference.

Oh, and before that, the rats and the mister and I went on a mini-road trip! I’m determined not to be so worried about every microbe in the air causing drug-resistant mycoplasmosis. Barnaby & Pew are still young and they deserve to experience some life. And so do I. 

Humans and rodents made it back in one piece. :)

So far this summer, more than 1,100 visitors to the Museum have participated in the Healthy Human Microbiome Project (HHMP) in the Museum’s Sackler Educational Laboratory (sampling continues on weekends through July 31). Participants’ microbiomes were sampled through swabbing at four locations on the body—the nasal passage, tongue, and left and right hands. During the initial sampling period, individuals from more than 50 countries—detailed on the map here—contributed samples of their microbial makeup to the HHMP.

Read about the initial results of the sampling.


Thursty Pike (aka Thirsty Pike) is a pilsner. Sampled on draught the beer poured a slightly hazy straw amber colour with a generous white head, that left quickly. The aroma was straightforward and contained notes of barley, malts, and hints of fruit and hops. For a beer with low ABV, this was remarkably full flavoured. Breadiness and grains start off the sip, melding into malts and a citrus bite - finishing with a crisp mild hop. The carbonation was medium and the body of the beer was light. This is quite a nice, a very sessionable, summertime beer. Straightforward, refreshing and crisp.

4.1% from Gananoque, Ontario

Gas sensors ‘see’ through soil to analyze microbial interactions.

External image

Rice University researchers have developed gas biosensors to “see” into soil and allow them to follow the behavior of the microbial communities within. In a study in the American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science and Technology, the Rice team described using genetically engineered …

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