CLOSE
Original image

Can Bacteria and Viruses Get Sick?

Original image

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.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
Original image
iStock

While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

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

Original image
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
arrow
Big Questions
How Many Rings Does Saturn Have?
Original image
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Of all the planets surrounded by rings, Saturn is the most famous. These planetary rings are massive enough that Galileo was able to see them using a simple telescope way back in 1610, though it wasn't until half a century later that another scientist was able to figure out what the "arms" Galileo saw actually were. NASA has since called them "the most recognized characteristic of any world in our solar system."

So how many rings does Saturn have, anyway? If you can see them from your backyard, there must be a lot, right?

Scientists don't know for sure exactly how many rings Saturn has. There are eight main, named ring groups that stretch across 175,000 miles, but there are far more than eight rings. These systems are named with letters of the alphabet, in order of their discovery. (Astronomers have known about ring groups A, B, and C since the 17th century, while others are newer discoveries. (The most recent was just discovered in 2009.)

The rings we can see in images of the planet—even high-resolution images—aren't single rings, per se, but are in fact comprised of thousands of smaller ringlets and can differ a lot in appearance, showing irregular ripples, kinks, and spokes. The chunky particles of ice that make up Saturn's rings vary in size from as small as a speck of dust to as large as a mountain.

While the gaps between Saturn's rings are small, the 26-mile-wide Keeler Gap is large enough to contain multiple moons, albeit very small ones. The largest ring system—the one discovered in 2009—starts 3.7 million miles away from Saturn itself and its material extends another 7.4 million miles out, though it's nearly invisible without the help of an infrared camera.

Researchers are still discovering new rings as well as new insights into the features of Saturn's already-known ring systems. In the early 1980s, NASA's Voyager missions took the first high-resolution images of Saturn and its rings, revealing previously unknown kinks in one of the narrower rings, known as the F ring. In 1997, NASA sent the Cassini orbiter to continue the space agency's study of the ringed planet, leading to the discovery of new rings, so faint that they remained unknown until Cassini's arrival in 2006. Before Cassini is sent to burn up in Saturn's atmosphere in September 2017, it's taking 22 dives through the space between the planet and its rings, bringing back new, up-close revelations about the ring system before the spacecraft dives to its death.

Though it's certainly possible to see Saturn's rings without any fancy equipment, using a low-end telescope at your house, that doesn't mean you always can. It depends on the way the planet is tilted; if you're looking at the rings edge-on, they may look like a flat line or, depending on the magnification, you might not be able to see them at all. However, 2017 happens to be a good year to see the sixth planet, so you're in luck.

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

SECTIONS

More from mental floss studios