Burning seaweed to make glass and avoid a lumpy neck

Seaweed is one of those tricky biological groups, as membership isn't just about being a close relative. It typically includes plant-like organisms found among several types of algae - green, brown, and red - and depending on who you're talking to also includes masses of cyanobacteria (which are distant relatives of algae). Functionally, all seaweeds enjoy growing in salty water and use the sun to manufacture sugary meals for themselves. Their need for sun means…

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Identifying infections by their stench?

Bacteria tend to smell. A classic example is the geosmin-producing Streptomyces species responsible for the nice earthy scent of freshly dug up soil. In general, though, bacteria have unpleasant odours. Just think of cheese, armpits, and poop. Lots of bacteria in or on all of those things. Some of the stinkiest bacteria are ones capable of infecting us. The distinctiveness of their disgusting bouquets may provide a means of identifying them. Hippocrates apparently diagnosed tuberculosis…

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Antimicrobial antenna bacteria of bee-hunting wasps

For many people, including myself, a mention of the word wasp brings to mind a particular yellow and black annoyance found hovering around garbage cans in the summertime. However, as is usually the case with the natural world, wasps are far more interesting than our common experiences with them let on. To start, there are thousands upon thousands of species, not just the yellow jackets we try to avoid being stung by as we eat…

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Why antibiotics in ointments differ from those in pills

There are many ways to get a drug into a person. Two common approaches are to swallow a small soluble solid or inject a liquid into a vein, causing it to be transported throughout the body to wherever it is needed.Topical medications are those applied to a body surface, be it skin, eyeballs, or the insides of your lungs. This is usually done to deliver the drug to the particular place requiring repair (e.g. eye…

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Breathing Bordeaux is entirely different from drinking it!

It was the summer of 1882, and grape farmers in the Médoc region of southwest France (north of Bordeaux, on the Atlantic coast) had a problem.Schoolchildren (or university students, or just anyone travelling the roads along which the grapevines grew, depending on what source you're reading) were pilfering their grapes. To try and ward them off, some farmers decided to dissolve some slaked lime and copper sulfate in water and spray it on their grapevines…

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Gently frying your eyeballs at work

When I was a kid, I got thwacked in the face with a golf club. It was totally my fault. I was goofing around with my cousins (as one does) and failed to notice one of them winding up for a swing. Ended up with four stitches, the first one just half an inch from my left eye. Could have been a lot worse!There's something particularly uncomfortable about the idea of injuring your eyes. The…

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Almost lichens: Green algae growing on mushrooms

Mushrooms come in many shapes and colours. In the case of green ones, which I've written about previously, a subset owe their colour not to any particular pigment they themselves produce, but rather to algae living on top of them.These algae-bearing fungi are usually polypores, otherwise known as bracket or shelf fungi. They tend to live inside dead trees, although they also be found in soil living in association with tree roots. After eating their…

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Tales from the pharmaceutical minor leagues

When a drug company first gets its hands on a potential new drug, it will usually assign it a code name. Later on, as the drug works its way through trials designed to make sure it does something useful (e.g. reduce blood pressure) without causing serious harm (e.g. liver failure), it's given a catchier moniker like fluoxetine or atorvastatin. If the trials are a success, and the government is happy with how they were carried…

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Return of the wild: How nature breaks down what we build up

When I was a teenager, I read Stephen King's book The Stand. It begins with the near-obliteration of humankind by a lethal virus. This was weirdly alluring stuff for a angsty teenage daydreamer. What would you do if the world ended? What would be your fate? I figured I'd make it a couple of months on canned food before succumbing to some sort of brutal antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection.These days, I find one of the most…

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Some fungi are into dead bodies and waste piles

For the past couple of years now, a fungus called Xylaria polymorpha has been munching on the buried roots of a beheaded tree on my parents' front lawn. In the grass surrounding the stump, X. polymorpha sends up a thicket of charcoal club-like mushrooms every summer. They look kinda like a dead man's fingers, which not coincidentally happens to be a common name for the fungus.Many fungi are closely associated with death. Saprotrophic fungi like…

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