CLOSE
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Scientists Develop Germ-Fighting Fake Mucus

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

We really don’t talk enough about the wonders of mucus. The goo produced by your nose, mouth, eyes, guts, and other parts is one of your greatest defenders, working hard to keep you safe in a germ-filled world. Now scientists have harnessed some of that power, creating a synthetic mucus that may help fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The research will be presented this week at the Experimental Biology 2017 meeting in Chicago.

Each of us produces about a gallon of mucus per day, enough to provide a thin coating over 2000 square feet of our innards. It’s a surprisingly versatile substance, for us and other animals. Last year, acoustic scientists reported that dolphins’ snot may be an essential ingredient in producing the clicks and whistles they use for echolocation. More recently, drug researchers found a powerful flu-fighting compound in the slime secreted by a tiny Indian frog.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Katharina Ribbeck is a tissue engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I am so excited about mucus,” she said in a statement, “because I am convinced it can help us find new strategies for protecting us from infections, in particular those that relate to an overgrowth of harmful microbes.”

"Over millions of years, the mucus has evolved the ability to keep a number of these problematic pathogenic microbes in check,” she said, “preventing them from causing damage. But the mucus does not kill the microbes. Instead, it tames them."

Ribbeck and her colleagues focused on strand-like mucus molecules called mucins (shown above), specifically one called MUC5B that’s found in our spit. They pitted MUC5B against two common oral bacteria: the cavity-causing Streptococcus mutans and the beneficial Streptococcus sanguinis. Left to their own devices, harmful S. mutans rapidly overwhelmed S. sanguinis and created a dangerous imbalance. But when the researchers introduced the bacteria to an artificial mucus solution containing MUC5B, the two species played nicely, living in relative harmony.

"We conclude from these findings that MUC5B may help prevent diseases such as dental caries [cavities] by reducing the potential that a single harmful species will dominate," said Ribbeck.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images
arrow
gross
How a London Museum Is Preserving a Chunk of the 143-Ton Whitechapel Fatberg
Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images

When UK officials learned of the 143-ton Whitechapel fatberg mucking up London’s sewer system, their first concern was getting rid of it. Now, the curators at the Museum of London are figuring out how to best preserve a chunk of the monstrous trash mass so as many visitors as possible can see it.

As WIRED UK reports, the museum's exhibition, titled "Fatberg!", launches on Friday, February 9. It features a congealed mound of fat, hair, diapers, wet wipes, sanitary napkins, and condoms that was salvaged from the Whitechapel fatberg shortly after it was discovered beneath the streets of London in September 2017. According to the exhibition’s curator, Vyki Sparkes, no one has ever tried preserving a fatberg before.

The garbage globs, which form from grease and oil poured down sink drains, attract debris ranging in size from candy wrappers to planks of wood. Just a small piece of one can provide a fascinating glimpse at the waste that ends up in city sewers, but displaying a fatberg for the public to view poses logistical challenges.

In this case, the fatberg piece was set out to dry for seven weeks before it was transported to the Museum of London. The resulting item has the consistency of "parmesan crossed with moon rock," according to CBC News, and is roughly the size of a shoebox. Outside of the moist environment of London’s underbelly, the solid chunk may continue to dry out and crumble into pieces. Mold growth and sewer fly infestations are also potential issues as long as it's left out in the open.

The museum curators initially considered pickling the fatberg in formaldehyde to solve the aging problem. This idea was ultimately nixed as the liquid would have likely dissolved the whole lump into loose sludge. Freezing was another possibility, but the museum was unable to get a hold of the specialist freezers necessary for that to happen in time.

In the end, the curators decided to display it as-is within three layers of boxes. The clear cases are meant to spare guests from the noxious odor that Sparkes described to CBC News as a weeks-old diaper smell that’s simmered into something more like a “damp Victorian basement.” The exhibition closes July 1, at which point the museum must decide if the fatberg, if it remains intact, should become a permanent part of their collection. And if the mass doesn’t end up surviving the five-month show, obtaining another one to sample shouldn’t be too difficult.

[h/t WIRED UK]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Live Smarter
The Surprising Place Where You're Likely to Encounter Germs at the Airport
iStock
iStock

From obsessing over recycled cabin air to worrying about potentially contaminated coffee or tea, flying isn't fun for germophobes. Now, Lonely Planet reports that travelers who opt for self check-in should consider breaking out the hand sanitizer before they even hit security.

In late 2017, the team at website insuranceQuotes checked out three major U.S. airports, as well as the planes used on several flights, to gauge which areas were the most germ-filled. They conducted 18 swab tests across six surfaces (including airport water fountains and plane armrests), then used lab analysis to measure the average number of colony-forming units (CFU), a standard measurement for the number of viable bacteria and fungal cells per square inch of a surface area.

Self check-in kiosks were the germiest surface, according to lab findings. The average kiosk screen contained 253,857 CFU, with one kiosk recording over 1 million CFU. Bathroom flush buttons were, surprisingly, quite a bit cleaner (although not that clean), with an average of 95,145 CFU. Other particularly germy spots included the bench armrests at airline gates (21,630 CFU on average), water fountain buttons (19,181 CFU on average) and airplane tray tables (11,595 CFU on average).

To put their results in perspective, insuranceQuotes provided the average CFUs for household objects and appliances like kitchen sinks (21,000 CFU), bathroom doorknobs (203 CFU), and toilet seats (172 CFU). For the most part, these levels were far lower than the ones found in airports and on planes, as you might expect when comparing public spaces to private homes.

But this report shouldn't plunge travelers into full-on Howard Hughes mode. For one thing, the tests were performed by an insurance company, not a team of trained scientists. And at the end of the day, not all germs are actually bad for you. As humans, we have trillions of microbes living both on us and inside of us. Some of these microbes are beneficial, and can even kill disease-causing bacteria. Exposure to some bacteria can even strengthen our immune systems.

Still worried? While flying, just remember to be careful where you put your hands, stash a travel-sized bottle of Purell in your carry-on, and follow other preventative tips for avoiding germs in transit.

[h/t Lonely Planet]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios