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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 Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

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
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

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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