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Humans are Gross

by on June 26, 2013

It’s true. Staphylococcus epidermidis, Streptococcus pyrogenes, Escherichia coli: these bacteria are all a typical part of your everyday life, living on your skin, in your mouth, and throughout your bowels. In fact, the number of organisms sharing your personal space far outnumber your actual cells.

These are among the lovely things that we get to learn in Microbiology. This week in lab we interpreted cultures of bacteria taken from our own bodies, and disturbing though it may be, I had to show you anyway.

Microbiology lab bacteria cultures

Gross or awesome? Don’t use smell to decide, that can only go one way.

Sure, making a bacteria culture is easy enough that it could be a middle school science activity- if not for, you know, the infectious agents. But allow me to explain the findings above. Mine was less gross than most. (A safe claim, since nobody else is posting their results online.)

Dish 3: samples swabbed from my palms and nostrils showed only one variety of bacteria, staphylococcus epidermidis. This is a normal skin-dweller, not notable for any common infection. Dish 2: a throat culture shows a small colony of S. epidermidis’ cousin Staphylococcus aureus. This fellow is more frequently implicated in skin or sinus infections, commonly recognized as staph infections. Nonetheless, I’m fine. No sign of sickness here.

Dishes 4 and 5: once again looking at my hands and nose, we meet my old adversary, streptococcus. Early in life I was relieved of my tonsils due to chronic tonsilitis, and these bacteria would be likely suspects in the irritation. For the most part, these two dishes exhibit a bunch of common, more mild-mannered forms of Strep, which only present problems when they arrive in weakened lungs (pneumonia) or heart valves (endocarditis). In a healthy body, this migration should not happen. However, the upper-left quadrant of dish 5 also shows a bacterial colony capable of breaking down blood cells, likely Strep. pyogenes, a common cause of pharyngitis, or strep throat. No sore throat here, though.

Dish 1: Okay, don’t freak out. This highly specialized culture turns up only one result: methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. In the news, you’ll recognize it by the abbreviation MRSA, and headlines like “Winning the MRSA battle in hospitals” or “Large city hospitals ‘breed and spread’ MRSA.” I showed little evidence of infection, with the minute appearance from a tiny red colony toward the left of the dish. But positive tests are not uncommon. The biochemistry department at NYCC tracks the occurrence of MRSA in each class, and as of their presentation in February 2013, a full 44% of students in the most recent class had tested positive.

The moral to me? Keeping these bacteria away is futile. They are omnipresent on our bodies and in our lives- but that does not have to be a problem. It means that our best option is keeping our body healthy and consistently well-supplied in its defensive efforts.

Oh, but trust me when I say you do not want to know about the parasitology unit.

Thanks to Drs. Veronica Mittak and Ilija Arar for providing me with their research statistics.


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Dr Tamara Lovelace

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