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Can Bacteria and Viruses Get Sick?

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Tis the season to be getting the cold and flu. But is it possible for the bacteria and viruses that infect us so easily to get sick themselves?

In 1917, a microbiologist working at the Pasteur Institute in Paris discovered what he described as an invisible, antagonistic microbe that had a parasitic relationship with bacteria. He called it a bacteriophage (from phagein, "to eat"), a virus that infects bacteria.

Bacteria Killers

Bacteriophages are simple organisms, usually just a strands or two of RNA or DNA enclosed in a protein hull with a tail attached. What they lack in sophisticated design, they make for in numbers: they're thought to be some of the the most widely distributed and diverse organisms on Earth. They can be found anywhere that bacteria live, from dirt, to oceans—where they may be infecting up to 70 percent of all marine bacteria—to our own intestines.

To enter their bacterial hosts, bacteriophages attach to receptors on the surface of bacteria (which can be various molecules or organic compounds, but a particular bacteriophage specializes in certain receptors) and are either drawn in to the cell or inject their genetic material into it. Either way, the end result is that the bacteriophage's genetic material takes over the bacterium's cellular machinery and forces it to produce more bacteriophages, which then spread out and infect other bacteria. It's all the gruesome drama of a nature show played out on a microbe-sized stage.

Figuring that the enemy of our enemy is our friend, scientists put bacteriophages to use as anti-bacterial agents. "Phage therapy" was abandoned in most places a few years later, when antibiotics - which were easier to manufacture, store and use - were discovered. Today, bacteriophages are still used to kill bacteria on food products, plants, and medical devices.

There's a flipside to bacteriophages' usefulness, though. They don't discriminate between "good" and "bad" bacteria like we do, and phage contamination of bacteria being cultivated for use in probiotic dairy products, for example, can bring things to a halt and cost the manufacturer time and money.

Virus Infectors

In 2008, researchers from the Universite de la Mediterranee in Marseille, France, identified an exceptionally large virus infecting an amoeba. They dubbed it mamavirus, and soon discovered another layer to the microscopic nesting dolls. The amoeba's virus was itself infected by a much smaller virus.

Sputnik, as the researchers called it, was the first member of a new class of viruses that scientists call virophages, viruses that infect other viruses. Sputnik has trouble multiplying without it preferred viral host, but once an amoeba is infected with the mamavirus, Sputnik hijacks the mama's cellular machinery and multiplies at its expense, producing more Sputniks while the mamavirus' own replicated particles assemble abnormally. The mechanics of it are fairly similar to what the mamavirus does to the amoeba. In effect, the virus is getting a taste of its own medicine.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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