I wrote the original post on my phone back in April 2017, while standing in the bathroom and sipping a cup of tea. I think it sort of summarises the kinds of things I’d like to talk about here, so thought I’d re-post from my social media accounts.
The above image is what you call an immunofluorescence (IF) microscopy image. Fancy words to say I used antibodies and laser beams to take a pretty picture! This one in particular shows a typical infection with the bacteria I work on.
(For those interested, host nuclei and bacterial DNA are in blue, lysosomal marker LAMP-1 in green, bacteria in red)
It’s March for Science day, so here’s a post to give an overview of something I’m working on as part of my Doctorate.
Firstly I work on bacteria, but specifically one that’s called Coxiella burnetii. Coxiella causes a disease called Q Fever, that basically manifests in the short-term as a flu-like illness. In saying that, though, most people wouldn’t even know they had it, since only half of those infected actually show signs of infection.
You can catch Q fever most commonly from domestic farm animals, although you don’t even need to be around the animals themselves to be infected. Interestingly these bacteria have a very low infectious dose, and you only need less than ten bacterial cells, floating around like dust in the air, for you to contract Q fever. Because of this low infectious dose, the 20th century saw these bugs being developed as a potential bioterrorism weapon.
Chronic fatigue is a big factor associated with contracting Q fever, and in some unfortunate cases the disease can progress to a nasty, chronic form, that most commonly presents as infections of the heart valves (fatal without treatment).
The lack of awareness about this pathogen outside of the agricultural industry (or even within) is cause for concern. As the climate warms and weather becomes dry and windy, this will provide perfect conditions for these bacteria to fly off to new areas and hosts. That’s why I’ve spent a little more time writing about the disease itself.
But the stuff I actually focus on is more nitty gritty (and microscopic) than that.
At the cell level, Coxiella are really cool, because when they get inside your body and get eaten up by the macrophages (Pac man white blood cells) inside your lungs, they wait patiently until they’re taken to the rubbish dump/recycling bin inside that cell. Most other organisms that end up there get completely obliterated. It’s super acidic, everything gets broken down, and generally most other living things try and stay the hell away from there. Coxiella, though, they LOVE IT. This is where they want to be, and they can grow in here so much that they end up taking most of the space inside the cell.
My Ph. D work focuses on understanding what the requirements are for these bacteria to replicate inside this usually toxic compartment within the cell. I’ve looked at what types of nutrients/food they like to eat (they can do carbs AND protein), what bacterial components are necessary for them to, well… eat, grow, make friends, maintain good mental health… Maybe not the mental health (should ask HOW they are, not WHAT 😂).
This sort of work basically helps us understand what makes Coxiella so special. It also helps us understand how our own cells work, because it’s much easier to learn about our body when shit goes wrong (ie. infection).
It’s not curing cancer, but every small piece of the puzzle helps us paint a bigger picture. Science helps us sift through tonnes of data and analyse it logically to come up with an objective fact or scientific theory. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely the best method we’ve got. I find it super fun to be able to work in a world class research institute, but to also learn from the very best about how to think logically.
Scientists get a bit of a bad rap when it comes to reaching out to the community and talking about important things like this. There’s a tendency to view people in this area as exclusive, unapproachable or simply intimidating (admittedly some ARE like that)… but when it comes down to it, we’re actually pretty ordinary people that love a night at the Pub (maybe a bit too much 😂) and just have a passion about our work.
I hope we as a scientific community can help inspire more people to be enthusiastic and supportive of scientific research and discovery.