An introduction

By Siouxsie Wiles 09/11/2010 14

I thought I would use my first post to introduce myself and explain the reason(s) for infectious thoughts. I am a research scientist with a background in medical and environmental microbiology. I’ll come back to what I do and what I’m interested in a bit later. As well as microorganisms, I am also obsessed with bioluminescence (the production of light by living organisms – think glow worms and fireflies).  I feel immensely privileged to have made a career out of combining these two passions, as in a nutshell, I make bacteria glow in the dark for a living. After many years working in the UK, I was recently awarded a Hercus Fellowship from the Health Research Council (HRC) of New Zealand and relocated to the University of Auckland (UoA). It goes without saying that the views I will be expressing are my own and in no way represent the views of the UoA or the HRC!

So why would glowing bacteria be useful? Well, for a start, we could see them coming! Actually, that is closer to the truth than you might expect. Tagging bacteria with the genes for bioluminescence allows us to use light as a surrogate for actually physically counting the numbers of bacteria present in a sample, which is what you do after plating samples onto selective agar. Instead we can use a luminometer or charged coupled device (CCD) camera to give us a measure of light intensity (relative light units [RLU]). One of the first things we have to do is determine the relationship between light and bacterial numbers, but once this is done we can get a pretty good idea of how many bacteria are present using the RLUs. This can be especially useful if the bacteria take many weeks to grow on an agar plate, like Mycobacterium tuberculosis (the agent of TB) does. The other neat thing about luminescence is that only living organisms will glow so it can be an easy way to tell if something is dead or alive. This feature formed the crux of my PhD research which involved generating bacterial biosensors to monitor the toxicity of industrial effluents from a wastewater treatment plant. The more toxic the industrial effluent, the less the bacterial sensors glow. While it wasn’t great for the company, or indeed, the river into which the treated wastewater is discharged, during my studies the treatment plant failed and it was fantastic to find that my sensors would have been able to predict the failure. Shame though that they are genetically modified organisms and therefore highly unlikely to ever be used for real-time monitoring.

While I enjoyed my PhD studies, I came to realise I was more interested in bacteria that cause human disease so for my post-doctoral research I moved back to medical microbiology, the subject of my undergraduate degree. And this is where bioluminescent bacteria come in really handy. I am not ashamed to say that I am one of those scientists who work with mice. Providing they are used appropriately, animals are still very important in medical research. As someone interested in infectious bacteria, many aspects of the interactions between microorganisms and their hosts just cannot be replicated in a cell line. But we don’t use mice for everything; alternatives include worms and insect larvae. But when we do have to use mice, having bioluminescent bacteria is a bonus. If you haven’t tried this simple experiment before, give it a go: hold a torch up against your hand and you will see a beautiful red light coming out the other side. This is because light can travel through flesh. Not all wavelengths can get through though, hence why the white light ends up coming out red. We are fortunate that there are now sensitive CCD cameras available that can detect even very dim signals coming through flesh. This allows us to visualise where our bacteria are from inside an animal, a technique known as biophotonic imaging (BPI). Usually the animals are anaesthetised, but they can be imaged while awake too. Biophotonic imaging means we can use a lot less animals in experiments; instead of needing separate groups to take organs for plating onto agar plates at different time points, we can follow the bioluminescence from each animal and watch the bacterial numbers and locations change over time. In this way, we can often stop an experiment before the mice start to show any symptoms of disease, saving them from unnecessary suffering. My research is currently focused on using BPI to investigate three particularly nasty bacteria: Staphylococcus aureus (the hospital superbug MRSA), Streptococcus pyogenes (the flesh-eating bug) and M. tuberculosis.

So why blog? There are two reasons really. The first is to try to convey the wonder and admiration I have for microorganisms by writing about recent publications I have found interesting. However, the second reason is perhaps more important, in the grand scheme of things. Twice a day I have to walk past the Christian Science Reading Room (and no, I’m not going to change my route…). These misguided souls go on the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) who wrote Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, first copyrighted in 1875 and still in print today. These guys deserve a post all their own, but what really got my blood boiling was this sign in the window. Contagion: a spiritual responseNow Baker Eddy could perhaps be excused. Robert Koch, one of the founding fathers of microbiology, first isolated Bacillus anthracis (the agent of anthrax) two years after Baker Eddy’s first edition, in 1877, with the isolation of M. tuberculosis following in 1882 and Vibrio cholerae (the agent of cholera) in 1883. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1905. But what is the excuse of other editions?! As a microbiologist I am obviously a proponent of the germ theory of disease and believe vaccination to be one of the wonders of medicine.

Recently I read Trick or Treatment, by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, reviewing the evidence for the effectiveness of complementary and alternative medicine. Despite no evidence for the success of these treatments, they are widely used. In the final chapter, the authors list some reasons why this might be. Surprisingly, scientists are on their list. Singh and Ernst argue that alternative health practitioners are highly vocal and many of their claims go unchallenged. They believe scientists have a responsibility to make their voices heard too. I found Singh and Ernst’s call to arms inspirational. Instead of cursing under my breath at Baker Eddy’s disciples twice a day (amongst many other things…) I should be more vocal. SciBlogs seems a great forum for such an endeavour!

14 Responses to “An introduction”

  • Hi, Welcome to Sciblogs. I think you’ll find that a CCD is a “charge-coupled device”, so you may wish to change your post.
    Cheers, Brent.

  • I am sorry to read that you think Christian Scientists are misguided. Having 5 generations of practicing Christian Scientists in my family who have had healings of, among other things, migraine headaches, internal bleeding, fall from a house rooftop incapacitating my father, severe burns on arms (pain gone in minutes), measles, chicken pox, mumps, and other problems, we have found prayer most effective on a day-to-day basis. More than the physical healing though is the peace and guidance one gains from turning to the God that Christ Jesus prayed to, and it certainly worked out well for those he prayed for and himself.
    There are 100 pages of testimonies of healing in the last chapter of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy. You might find it interesting to stop in the Reading Room some day and just sit and read those last 100 pages of the book – something to think about.

    • Thanks for the offer, Kathy, but I’m afraid reading testimonials (even if there are 100 pages of them) will not change my mind. On the other hand evidence would. However testimonials are not evidence. Indeed, the evidence seems to point to there being no benefit to prayer.

  • The field you are working in is an important and fascinating one. It’s a deep field, and I’m not surprised at your reaction when passing the Christian Science Reading Room because Christian Science is fundamentally different from the world of microoganisms. I’m not saying “opposed” because that’s not the nature of it.

    While many scientists no doubt feel as you do (and I’m not expecting you to change your viewpoint,) there is a diversity of opinion even in the medical field about the limitations of taking a purely physical approach to scientific rationale. To do so can unwittingly exclude the possibility of other avenues. There is ample empirical evidence of the effectiveness of Christian Science, the instances Kathy quotes from her own experience being typical. Even contagion has been successfully addressed. As humanity progresses, there may well be phenomena where empirical evidence isn’t necessarily inadequate or unreliable.

    Those who have experienced significant cures through applying Christian Science are unlikely to be imagining it. Plenty of these cases are diagnosed medically, too. Yes, Mrs Eddy was active at a time when many of our modern scientific advances had not yet blossomed; however, her spiritual method of working continues to be available, and many find it reliable for both their physical and mental well-being.

    One cannot but respect those in your field. At the same time, there’s another side to the question of fundamental being, consciousness, etc., what the Christian Scientist would call spirituality, for those who wish to investigate it.

  • Why is it called Christian “Science” in the first place when as Graham B and Kathy have pointed out it does not involve empirical evidence and relies on anecdotal “evidence”, thereby making it incompatible with the definition of science?

    • Why indeed? That, Michael, is one of the major things that bugs me every time I walk past their reading room.

  • The answer to your question lies in the context. In the middle of the nineteenth century the term Christian Science was used by a number of thinkers and authors, suggesting they saw a link between Christianity and science. Mary Baker Eddy adopted the term to describe the spiritual healing method that she discovered, and that’s where the name has resided since then.

    The etymology of the word science relates to knowledge. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, for example, defines it as “Possession of knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding; knowledge attained through study or practice.” Mrs Eddy felt she had discovered rigorous spiritual laws relating mankind to God, constituting rules that can be proved when applied. She devoted the latter half of her life to documenting what she had discovered, and in teaching others, besides demonstrating it, often in impressive ways. From her perspective, she had acquired knowledge that constituted a science, and that was generally in line with the use of the word, especially as she saw it as a fundamental explanation of being.

    If Eddy were living today, would she choose the term Christian Science? I don’t know, but it certainly is an important, practical form of Christian metaphysics, whatever the terminology.

    Today’s use of the word science typically has ties to modern“scientific method”, which tends to be associated with a purely physical approach, although not all authorities agree on that being the ultimate answer. The healing results of Christian Science may not be accommodated within such a method, but they continue to be experienced by many people.

    I hope that at least gives you an idea of how this came about. The future of science, however one wishes to regard it, is exciting.

    • One of the problems I have with the “healing results of Christian Science” is whether they are really due to Christian Science. This is what makes the modern ‘scientific method’ so much more powerful than Mary Baker Eddy’s concept of science. There are a number of reasons why people may associate two events but that does not mean they are related. This is what clinical trials and real science try to overcome. Was it just regression to the mean, or the immune system doing it’s job? Or was it really some supernatural/spiritual force? I wonder. As I replied to Kathy, when you take away all the bias that people can unwittingly bring to the table, the evidence doesn’t seem to support the testimonials. One reason for this could be that you are unlikely to hear testimonials from people who it didn’t work for.

  • From where you sit I can understand how it may look in terms of what is actually going on. While appreciating what you say, I would be cautious about concluding that the results of applying Christian Science are simply “the immune system doing its job,” etc. And C.S. gets used in lots of situations besides dealing with, say, contagion. It certainly can be described as spiritual, though I’d be wary of the word supernatural as that implies something unknowable. Perhaps it’s best to say, albeit simplistically, that it’s basis is different from that of the physical sciences, and comparisons can tend to be orthogonal.

  • I would be cautious about concluding that the results of applying Christian Science are simply “the immune system doing its job,” etc.

    Well you can’t conclude from the ancedata that people are healing by themselves, or reverting to the mean after a bad run or whatever. Just like you can’t conclude it was the CS mindset/faith whatever the cured them. That’s exactly why you need to run tests of these things.

    It shouldn’t be hard to run a “waiting list” trial on CS treatment for a particular ilness. Enroll some willing CS adherends to a trial, but tell half of them they’ll have to wait a month to see a parcitionarer. Compare the groups after a month. That’ll tell you if if CS is better than nothing.

    I don’t understand CS enough to know how you could do a placebo trial (but it’s probably possible) and if you could control for the other differences between CS adherents as a group and the genreal public, you could compare CS and other medical interventtions for a given illness.

    Until you have that sort of trial, it’s very hard to know if the amazing testimonials are just people that would have got better anyway.

  • “I would be cautious about concluding that the results of applying Christian Science are simply “the immune system doing its job””
    A fair comment but only because there is no attempt to objectively analyse the results or conditions of any perceived healing. Under such circumstances it is impossible to say it is or is not the immune system doing it’s job, in the same way as it is impossible to say it is or is not a spiritual healing. Under such circumstances someone with a Christian Science bias will accept the latter, which someone with whoese thinking is based in the physical world will suggest a natural/physical process as the most likely reason.
    Of course a well planned study where bias is removed might give a more definitive answer. To my knowledge any such studies have failed to indicate anything beyond physical processes.