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Get Smarter The Dirty Way October 5, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Human Body, Psychology and Behavior, Tough Stuff.
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Sometimes, intelligence can happen in the dirtiest of places. A new study suggests that exposure to certain kinds of bacteria outside could help improve learning.

Researchers at The Sage Colleges in New York studied Mycobacterium vaccae, which earlier studies showed might have antidepressant properties. In this new study, it seems that M. vaccae could help increase learning behavior. Their work was presented at the 110th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in San Diego.

To learn how the research began, let’s ask some mice.

What Do Mice Say About It?

Why mice? It’s one way to initially test out an idea. If all goes well, then we might see how it affects humans. But to find out what happens when mice get up close and personal to bacteria, we have to take a step back and check out an experiment some other researchers did years ago.

Let’s Start With Dead Bacteria

In an earlier experiment, mice were injected with heat-killed bacteria. It got neurons in their brains growing, which then led to more serotonin – a brain messenger – being released. Serotonin is a member of a chemical crew called neurotransmitters that have all sorts of neat roles.

Can bacteria help learning? Some curious researchers decided to find out.

Time To Try Living Stuff

Since one of serotonin’s roles is to contribute to learning, a different group of researchers wondered if live bacteria could improve learning in mice. They fed the mice some live bacteria and then got the mice to navigate a maze. Another bunch of mice didn’t get the bacteria and still had to do the maze. This way, researchers could compare the two results. So who won?

Fast, Wee Critters

The mice who got live bacteria navigated the maze twice as fast as those who got none. Another cool thing was that those bacteria-guzzling mice showed less anxiety. Imagine if you had to do a maze? You might be nervous too! Researchers think the bacteria helped the mice get less worked up about finding their way out, plus helped them figure it out quicker too.

But do these benefits last? Unfortunately, nope. Three weeks later, researchers tested the mice again, but didn’t give them bacteria. This time, the mice couldn’t do it any faster. We can’t say for sure that this will help humans. But the results tell us that M. vaccae might play a role in learning and anxiety in mammals.

Getting More Out Of Playtime

It could be that when kids spend time outdoors – like during lunchtime – exposure to the bacteria may have some pretty smart benefits. If not, at least you can have fun kicking up some dirt. At my age, I’d probably be considered daft if I do that but maybe the bacteria will balance it all out? Somehow though, I think if my dog Tiko was perched nearby, he’d loudly bark “no.”

The Bold Traveler October 19, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Environment, Microbes, Think About It.
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Imagine a world where you are all alone and surrounded by complete and total darkness. Now, take away all of your oxygen. Sound scary? Not necessarily. For the Desulforudis audaxviator – or bold traveler – this is the normal way of life. This bug relies on some important things for its survival: water, hydrogen and sulphate. It was recently discovered by a group of scientists led by Dr Dylan Chivian of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The results of the research were published in the journal Science.

J. Craig Venter Institute, and Gordon Southam, University of Western Ontario

Credit: Greg Wanger, J. Craig Venter Institute, and Gordon Southam, University of Western Ontario. This lonely baterium travels in complete darkness.

So, why should we care about this lonely bug that braves its world alone? Well, if we think about how this rod-shaped bacterium can survive without oxygen, we might be able to get some important clues about whether life exists on other planets. If we found life on other planets, we would maybe learn that those bugs and creatures are able to get by without oxygen while still obtaining energy from chemicals such as sulphate.

Excited Scientists

Let me tell you, scientists were really excited when they discovered the bacterium. But, it wasn’t easy! They found it 1.74 miles (2.8 km) below the Earth’s surface near Mponeng mine, which is close to Johannesburg, South Africa. The bug was in total darkness and 60 C (140 F) heat. Now that’s hot! Scientists originally found the bacterium in DNA that was drawn from cracks in the mine – filled with water. Who would have thought that it would be a gold mine where scientists would discover the first ecosystem that only has one biological species? Sometimes, it seems that darkness can be full of special surprises and this is especially true in the case of our bold, lonely traveler.

A Day In The Life Of The Lonely Traveler

Since our isolated bacterium lives all alone, it has to get organic molecules without any help from other species. To do this, it builds what it needs to survive from water, inorganic carbon and nitrogen. These are all sourced from ammonia in the nearby rocks and fluid. But it sure does live deep in the Earth, doesn’t it? Thanks to evolution, our traveling friend can handle all sorts of tough situations and conditions. Over time, it has developed ways to handle stuff like fixing nitrogen straight from elemental nitrogen in the environment.

But wait, it can’t do everything. This smart bacterium can’t handle oxygen, which tells scientists that it has been without oxygen for a really long time. I guess that the lengthy journey into the Earth has toughened it up to lots of harsh conditions. However, without oxygen exposure, there was no need for it to develop any mechanism to resist it. Still, it continues to survive and hints to us that there could be a lot more bugs and creatures out there that manage to get by just fine without oxygen and many of the basic things we associate with life. Now that’s adaptation!

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