Can Bacteria and Viruses Get Sick?

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
What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

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
What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
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Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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