Bugs in the news

Again. Bugs are always in the news, but this weekend provided lots of newsworthy microbiology. Primarily agricultural stuff, but still with at least some (or more) human interest. It’s obviously part of my job to make you realise just how important and relevant microbiology is, so here’s a quick snapshot of what we got served this week.

Bird Flu in Lancashire. Yep. H7N7 in Goosnargh, which coincidentally sounds like a description of the noise a gander might make just before succumbing to the virus. There’s a a 10km surveillance zone and a 3km inner protection zone around the farm in question, and anything poultry-related in that first 28.27km² is being killed. H7N7 is one of the avian flu viruses that can also infect humans (and pigs, seals and horses), so it’s worth keeping under control for more than just the sake of the local chickens.

No Chicken Love in USA. If you want to head away from Virusville, try going down the bacterial route, because Bird Flu isn’t in the only thing that you can get from your chicken: Salmonella can be a proper bastard, too. I contracted Salmonella enteritidis PT4 from a dodgy chicken dish in a dodgy Italian restaurant in a dodgy street in Oxford in the late 90s and I can still remember how sick I was. The main symptoms were sweating, shaking, swearing and farting. Thus, it was a thoroughly unpleasant time for all involved. But all I did was eat some chicken – imagine how much more likely you are to get the bug if you… you…  kiss… your chicken.

In interviews, ill people answered questions about contact with animals and foods consumed during the week before becoming ill; 82 (86%) of the 95 ill people interviewed reported contact with live poultry (e.g., chicks, chickens, ducks, ducklings) before becoming ill. Sixty-four ill people who had purchase records available reported purchasing live baby poultry from 17 different feed supply stores and hatcheries in multiple states. Ill people reported purchasing live poultry for backyard flocks to produce eggs or meat, or to keep as pets. Many ill people in these outbreaks reported bringing the live poultry into their homes, and others reported kissing or cuddling with the live poultry. These behaviors increase a person’s risk of a Salmonella infection.

The states worst affected are Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia. I’m saying no more.

Bee Flu in Cape Town. Not strictly Bee Flu, but American Foulbrood Disease, caused by the spores of Paenibacillus larvae ssp. larvae. It’s nasty, and it’s killing thousands of bees in the Western Cape. The good news is that you and I can’t get it (although I wouldn’t advise cuddling or kissing any bees). The bad news is that if it doesn’t get sorted soon, then not only will local honey prices rise (oh no!), but the local fruit industry might collapse:

“As much as we can import honey cheaper from other countries, we cannot import the pollination service done by bees. If not controlled, the disease would also affect the fruit industry, which contributes a lot to the South African economy, and put food security at risk.”

Paenibacillus larvae is related to the bug that causes Anthrax, and their spores can survive for decades unless you kill them with fire. So that’s literally what you have to do with your infected hives and equipment. Not ideal for the longevity and continuation of your bee-keeping business.

Dog Foot Popcorn Odour Mystery Solved. Do you sniff your dog’s feet? For me, that’s right up there with cuddling and kissing your chicken. But there are, apparently, some individuals out there who do this and then – after a brief paws – report back that the feet in question smell “like popcorn”.

Why do dogs’ paws smell like popcorn? Because bacteria, obviously:

Dog feet are a great place for bacteria and yeast to take up residence because there’s a lot of moisture and little to no air circulation in the folds and pockets of skin between the toes and foot pads. Bacteria flock there and reproduce with exuberance. All these microorganisms emit their own distinct odors (they’re what give us BO), and the popcorn/corn chip smell on some dogs’ feet could be due to yeast or Proteus bacteria. Both are known for their sweet, corn tortilla–like smell. Or it could be Pseudomonas bacteria, which smell a little fruitier—but pretty close to popcorn to most noses.

Having years of laboratory experience, I can safely say that yeast smells like bread, not popcorn (I love the smell of freshly grown yeast on a plate) (just try not to think of where it came from). Pseudomonas spp. smell sweet and pleasant (but not of popcorn), and Proteus is a mix of fish (not good fish) and vinegar. Thus, I’m struggling to get the popcorn reference here. But equally, I’m not going to go down the road of smelling Colin’s dirty feet (or anything else) in the name of science.