For my main sciart project this month I chose microbiology as a them and specifically I wanted to represent a bad bacteria so that I could later go on to do a good bacteria (one that want to have living in us) in the future. Bacterias are fascinating little critters that can do a wide variety of things, both good and bad, to our bodies and our environments. There were so many to pick from that it was almost overwhelming.
I finally settled on the bacteria Chlamydia Trachomatis which is one of the world's most common sexually transmitted infections. One of the reasons it is so common is that often the infection often has no symptoms and so it is readily passed from person to person where it rapidly spreads. My painting shows what a host cell that has been infected with Chlamydia looks like at just 48 hours after infection. If you remember my time-lapse drawing that I did of the Chlamydia life cycle, the next stage would be the cell breaking open and releasing the elementary bodies (those circles shown in red with the little spikes on them) that would then attach to other cells, ultimately entering those susceptible cells and continuing to rapidly spread the infection.
Another reason I felt it was important to bring attention to this bacteria is that it is the leading cause of preventable blindness world wide. Chlamydia is best known in America for being an STI that can cause infertility and a nasty infection, but across the globe it is also well known as a cause of blindness- which can be prevented.
In the 1960's a vaccine for Chlamydia was being developed but the work was abandoned when it was discovered that the proposed vaccine actually left the host more susceptible to the bacteria's infection. At the time, the reasons why were a mystery. It frightened the public and the research was abandoned for many years. It wasn't until recently that researches found out why that was happening. And thanks to that research, which you can read about via this link, a 50 year old mystery appears to have been solved with a vaccine for Chlamydia on the horizon! The vaccine uses mucous membranes as the pathway to immunity with nano particles as the adjuvant. Fascinating stuff that will hopefully protect fertility and vision for millions of people worldwide.
This brings me to another reason why I chose Chlamydia as my bacteria for my project this month. In the United States there is a big push by the religious right to shut down health clinics for women. Clinics such as Planned Parenthood are a huge target by right wing Americans and people who believe that abortion is evil. These people consider themselves to be pro-life. Abortion being only one in a very long list of health-care procedures being offered at these clinics. There is a myriad of other procedures and wellness checks that occur much more readily- such as pap smears, fertility checks, vaccinations and many other regular health screenings. Those common procedures are ignored by propaganda machines dedicated to vilifying these women's health centers as "baby killers". The truth is, these clinics are incredibly valuable, particularly to lower income women who can not afford to go to a regular gynecologist or general care practitioner for routine care. When I was young and poor and living in Los Angeles, Planned Parenthood was the only place I could afford to go to get wellness checkups, SDI tests, birth control and pap smears. Planned Parenthood allowed me to stay safe and healthy at a time when I count not afford to go to a stand-alone doctor's office. And one of the most commonly treated SDIs at Planned Parenthood is- you guessed it! Chlamydia. Once detected it is relatively easy to cure but if it is left untreated it is a leading cause of infertility, and remember it often goes undetected. Sexually active young adults need to be checked regularly or they risk not being able to have children later in life. A fact that pro-life people should consider. If you shut the doors on affordable clinics that will cure Chlamydia, you are helping to increase the cases of infertility and in some situations- preventable blindness.
I realize that this is already a long post, but I have to give a special shout out to my friend and microbiologist, Chris Tucker who really helped me a lot with understanding how to visualize bacteria. His job as a microbiologist is to test food for the bacterias that we DON'T want. He was the perfect person to ask questions to. One of the questions I asked was about "gram positive" and "gram negative" bacteria staining in the lab. It is why I painted the bacteria red. Here is what Chris had to say:
The whole point of staining cells is to bring out details and contrasts. So stains tend to be darker colors, blues, purples, some blue-greens. These are generally cast against a pink counterstain that colors everything without the target binding proteins on the cell.
When you think about looking through a microscope you have to realize you are shining a bright light from below your slide. A yellow stain would be about as good as not staining at all.
The most famous is the Gram stain, this is a helpful identification stain because it only stains cells and using a combination of stains can detect between several groups of organisms (Gram positve, gram negative and spore forming.)
Gram positive cells take up the Gram Stain solution and appear dark purple on a slide.
Gram negative cells do not take in the Gram stain, so when presented with a lighter counterstain called Safranin they take on a pink color under the microscope. (Gram positive cells take this in too but the darker gram stain overpowers it.)
And finally spore walls that some bacteria produce don’t take up either of these stains, they do however take a stain called Malachite Green… which as you can guess is green.
So really a lot of staining techniques aren’t even a given color but a series of various contrasting colors that bring out different characteristics.
Another general stain I use at work is called LW or Methyline Blue. This stain is used in milk to test for nuclear material. It contains a stain that binds to nuclear proteins and turns them blue and a weak generalized dye that makes everything else pink. The result is a smear with dark blue/purple blobs that are cells. The doesn’t give anything about what the cell is, just that it is there. If cells are in milk that means the animal has had an increase in its immune system and thus may not be a healthy animal.
Chlamydia is a gram negative bacteria. This brings me to my final fascinating fact about Chlamydia.
Most bacterias exist outside of a cell and can survive without a host while most viruses need a host cell to survive. Chlamydia acts in some ways as both a bacteria and a virus and for a while there was a huge debate as to what it actually was. Chlamydia releases elementary bodies, the ones with the little spikes, they are the infectious parts and they attach to a cell and get inside and then take over parts of the cell to reproduce. They are a bacteria that needs a host in order to spread.
This project has been so fascinating to me and I hope to return to the world of microbiology very soon.
If you would like to learn more about this bacteria that acts like a virus, here is a wiki I found to get you started.
Special thanks to microbiologist, Chris Tucker for his fact checking and help with visualizations of bacteria. And a special shout out to my friend Amanda who works at a women's clinic and inspired me to turn an STI into art. I promised her and her coworkers a coloring page of bacterias to help them wind down in meetings and I hope to have that completed in a few days! So keep an eye out for that! As always, my Patrons will get a patron-only download link for the coloring page.
Next month's project will turn our eyes up and outward as I will be doing a project about the moon with a real-life NASA systems engineer as my advisor! I'm very excited about to tell you more about that and to get started on it!
Thank you for being my patron. I couldn't do these projects without your support!