September 21, 2011
If you ain’t dirty, you ain’t here to party
Dr. Joe Latimer is a microbiological rock star: he survived four days of mud, sweat and tears at Glastonbury, our most intense event ever (by a long shot). And he came back for more at Bestival, where he proudly displayed a microbial colony grown from his own rectum and taught us all how to treasure our bacterial brethren. Read his tales from his summer of renegade research: “I hope we convinced at least a few people that bacteria don’t just infect us, or live on us, but that they are us.”
What do dirty secrets, loud music, lost voices, sleep-deprivation, sweaty armpits, the apocalypse, drunken shenanigans, “superbugs”, swabbing strangers, overcoming phobias, making friends, and freaking the hell out of the general public all have in common? Well luckily for me, this summer all were part of my ‘other’ job – festival microbiologist!
In normal life I am a research scientist at the University of Manchester, and I love the microbiological work I do: figuring out how and why different antibacterial chemicals kill different types of bacteria and what makes them resistant. But for two long weekends I was lucky enough to leave behind the minutiae of pipettes and paperwork and instead bring the wider world of microbiology to festival-goers at Glastonbury and Bestival.
As soon as my boss, Dr Andrew McBain, said he had been approached by Guerilla Science, my labmate Sarah Forbes and I signed up straight away. Just a few weeks later, we were sitting in front of our lovingly hand-grown “Microbial Zoo”, at the front of a Decontamination Unit, in the pre-apocalyptic nightmare city of sin Shangri La at the Glastonbury Festival.
Sarah had constructed the zoo, a colourful grid of agar plates covered with colonies of bacteria drawn from the human body, so we could show people some of the huge diversity of life on Planet You.
We used these plates to explain how your bacteria keep you alive by digesting your food, making your vitamins, fine-tuning your immune system and protecting you from infection, diabetes, obesity and even cancer.
This year’s Shangri-La storyline centred around an outbreak of a devastating virus. The virus destroyed all bacterial life on your body, and it was our duty to warn the filthy citizens that if they were not decontaminated with all possible urgency, their resident bacteria would surely die – and so then, must they. The patient was then sent through into the unknown, to be physically or morally decontaminated.
The reactions from the “victims” always kept things interesting for us. Some loved it and played along brilliantly. Many seemed genuinely alarmed by how important their own bacteria were to them. Some tried to infect us. A few thought we were actors. And others were so far gone they had no idea what they were doing. One hapless individual drunkenly fell, butt-naked and oblivious, out of the physical decontamination room into a reception area full of bemused punters. Overall it was a great success, we received tons of press coverage, and we even made page two of the Guardian G2!
Bestival was an altogether different experience. This time I was joined by Gavin Humphreys, a fellow postdoc in our group. Again, with Sarah, we constructed the bacterial zoo, but this time… it was personal: as well as a range of species of bacteria that live in the body, we also included some plates on which we’d swabbed out different parts of our own bodies.
So there, among the Staphylococcus epidermidis and Escherichia coli you’d be lucky to spot Gavin’s throat, toes and nostrils, or even my bum! This time we really got a chance for a big geek-off as part of a great programme of Dirt-related events, and gave a half-hour talk about our bacterial friends and enemies.
Did you know, for example that if you were to line up all the bacteria in your body, end to end, the line would stretch right round the world, and then to the moon and back? That’s a mind-boggling 100 trillion bacteria. One of these, Proteus mirabilis, can move so fast that, if scaled up to the size of a human being, it could run the 100 m race in just three seconds.
Mycobacterium smegmatis hangs out under our foreskins and if left to overgrow, produces what is affectionately known as knobcheese. And I know you like to think your shit don’t stink, but the anaerobic bacteria in your gut know better, as they’re the ones responsible!
But before you fall out with your bacterial friends, take a moment to remember all the amazing things they do for you, and what they could do for you – from breaking down our toxic waste to curing cancers – all currently being developed by research microbiologists around the world.
Gavin did a great job with his pecha kucha talk – a quickfire education on the disgusting side of bacteria. The audience were amazed and disgusted in equal measure by his gruesome tales and graphic images of what can happen when we get infected by the tiny percentage of bacteria that are truly out to get you. Gangrene and dissolving flesh – that’s enough to put you off your burgers and beer.
Our game of “Play Your Bugs Right” revealed how filthy festival-goers really are. We’d brought along our portable ATP sensor (ATP being the currency of energy used by living things), which gives an idea of the number of bacteria scooped up by a special swab. We had a great volunteer, whom we prodded and poked with swabs, and I hope his prize of a cuddly Escherichia coli was fair recompense for us telling him that the amount of bacteria between his toes was off the scale.
Being part of the Guerilla Science music festival extravaganza was amazing and Sarah, Gavin and I are grateful to everyone involved. It was a refreshing change to bring some fun and creativity to microbiology – a field that most people think of as either plain boring, or all about nasty superbugs.
I hope we convinced at least a few people that bacteria don’t just infect us, or live on us, but that they are us. As for me, my job will be much less exciting from now on, but I think my bacteria will be thankful for the return to their daily routine.
By Joe Latimer – one badass microbiologist, who pulled out all the stops for us this summer.