Penny Thoughts

The Ramblings of a Biology Lover, with a Few Surprises on the Side

Category: Microbiology

Could Young Blood Stop you from Ageing?

Research in the US has shown that injecting old mice with young blood leads to improved muscle strength, brain function and stamina; potentially reversing the effects of ageing.

3 studies were published last week in Science, all reporting on the rejuvenating effects of young blood in older mice. The young blood led to the appeared reversal of age-related declines in memory, learning, stamina and the function of many organs including the heart and brain.

Ageing is the underlying cause of a huge number of health problems. As our bodily systems slowly go into decline with age, health problems like dementia, cancer, heart disease and diabetes become more and more common. By learning more about the ageing process and its links with various health problems, we could predict, or even prevent many cases. Therefore, this research carried out in the US is of great importance.

In each study the researchers used a process called heterochronic parabiosis, which essentially involves joining two mice together; think conjoined twins. This process is carried out by making an incision on one side of each mouse and then allowing the wounds to heal in such a way that the two mice become joined. This process results in the joining of the two mice’s blood supply.

The researchers joined young mice (3 months) with older mice (18 months) and studied the effects of the new shared blood supply.  They found that brain function increased in the older mouse, as not only did the mice grow more neural connections (how brain cells communicate), these connections were also stronger. This means better communication between the cells in the brain of the older mouse.

Villeda, lead author of one of the papers told the Guardian “There’s something about young blood that can literally reverse the impairments you see in the older brain.”

From these initial findings Villeda went on to directly inject older mice with young blood plasma (blood without red blood cells), and what he found was remarkable. He tested the young and old rats’ memory and ability to learn using a water maze and testing their ability to remember a threatening environment.

The old rats injected with young blood plasma performed just as well as the six-month old rats in the maze task. Even more remarkably, the older rats performed as well as the three-month olds in remembering a threatening environment.

These results suggest that there is something in the blood of young rats that is essentially reversing or halting the ageing process in older rats.. so what is it?

The answer to that very important questions is Creb; a protein that regulates the brain. The young blood plasma actually increases the activity of Creb which in turn switches on the genes that create neural connections.

However, young plasma isn’t just improving learning and memory in mice. Further studies have shown that injected young blood also increases blood flow in the brain by encouraging blood vessel growth. There was also an increase in the growth of neural stem cells which later become new brain cells. It has also been found that young blood makes older mice stronger and boosts endurance due to increased muscle function. The young blood also led to the older mice gaining a greater sense of smell.

So this is all very exciting, but what happens if you do the opposite, and inject young mice with old blood? Well, interestingly the younger mice show the opposite results; they show decreased brain and muscle function and perform less well in memory and learning tasks. So the process works both ways.

So what does this all mean for us? According to Villeda, “The evidence is strong enough now, in multiple tissues, that it’s warranted to try and apply this in humans”. This potential research is however, not expected to take place until three to five years from now.

This is all very promising, and if the same is found in humans there could be a dramatic reduction in the onset of age-related health issues, which would be particularly important as the aged population in the UK continues to grow. Preventing the onset of these diseases would save a huge amount of money and potentially work to prevent the potential impeding public health crisis.

However, we cannot know for sure the impacts of this study on humans until clinical trials are carried out. So don’t go stitching yourself to your children just yet.. there is plenty more we don’t know.



Luke Jerram- Glass Microbiology

Luke Jerram increases the microbiological world by 1 million times to show the beauty of the cells and pathogens that can both take away and create life.

Being a biology lover I get rather excited when biology reaches the art world. When I found these sculptures by Luke Jerram I couldn’t wait to share them on here.

Scultpures were made of numerous different pathogenic and non- pathogenic creatures including viruses, bacteria, and apicomplexa, including E. coli, adenovirus, malaria and salmonella. All sculptures are scientifically accurate and have even been used as a teaching tool in the fields of microbiology. The sculptures allow people to see these pathogens as large, 3D entities rather than the coloured, 2D forms most people are used to. This means people can really get a grasp of them as whole orgnisms rather than simply pictures in books.

The reason why these sculptures are so important is that they provide a accurate representation of the (lack of) colour of these pathogens. Unlike what many people may believe, these pathogens are in fact colourless, but due to the tecniques used in microscopy, the pathogens have to be dyed to be observed.

This means that the pictures of these critters that we are accustomed to seeing are false-coloured. Without staining, these pathogens could not be seen and therefore it has to be done. But Luke Jerram’s work has provided the opportunity to see the pathogens as their more transparent selves.

Members of the collection are currently residents at The Museum of Art and Desing (NYC), The National Glass Centre (UK), Pittsburg Glass Museum and Caixa Museum Madrid. If you are lucky enough to get the opportunity to go to one of these exhibitions.. do it!

If you want to find out more about these not-so-micro entities then visit the Luke Jerram Glass Microbiology website here. It is full of lots of information about the exhibitions and beautiful photos of some of Jerram’s work. I’ll share a few more photos here becuase I can’t narrow it down to a couple as they are all too stunning.

Microbial Art- Combining Science and Art

bloody mary

As a biologists I have spent too many hours than I’d care to admit in the lab. For a lot of that time I was trying to think of ways to find some fun in the rather dull and controlled environment. If only I had found these amazing pieces of art sooner.

A lot of work I have done has dealt with growing cells on petri dishes. This is not the most exciting of activities, but some very talented artists and scientists have found a way to make art from growing cell cultures.

The work is know as Microbial art and has been put together by  Dr. T. Ryan Gregory. It is a collection of various artists and scientists’ works brought together to show the beauty that is present in a normally “invisible” world.

I love this idea of using pretty dull lab procedures to make really individual pieces of art. Here’s a few I found when looking around the website.

image8_1This and the photo at the top of this post are by Dr Ben Jacob and you can see all of his work here. These pictures may look like paint or ink, but it is in fact made up of billions of living bacterial cells.

This picture is great as it shows the art within the petri dish itself rather than snapshots of portions of the dish like Dr Ben Jacobs and the below Erno-Erik Raitanen’s work. This piece is one of a collection of works done by the iGEM team in Osaka using  Salmonella Typhimurium bacteria that are expressing proteins that lead to fluorescence.

bacteriogram2This piece is by a Finnish artist called Erno-Erik Raitanen. This is another great piece of work using bacteria and growing them on a film negative with gelatin on the surface. The bacteria eat the gelatin and that leads to the amazing patterns seen in the photos. The film negatives are then developed and the beautiful results can be seen here.

These are only a few pictures from a huge collection that can all be found of the microbial art website. Have a browse about, some of the results are incredible. These pieces are bridging the gap that exists between science and art, and have really opened my eyes to the beauty that is hidden away from us normally.

Beauty in the Detail: Pollen

I shared some amazing photos of pollen a few days ago by Martin Oeggerli which you can find here. I got a great response from these and I loved the photos so I thought I’d look about for anything else similar.

I stumbled across a huge variety of images. Unlike the National Geographic photos these are non-colour pictures but I feel they still capture the beauty of the microscopic natural world that surrounds us.

The beauty that can be seen in nature, I feel is overlooked by us all. There are some stunning things that we can miss in the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives. I have recently started to realise just how much of the world I filter out when going about my daily routine. We need to start stopping more, expand our current tunnel vision and take in the wonder that surrounds us.

03 PollenMix08OLily-3

I just love how alien these pollen grains look, yet these microscopic grains float around us all the time and can cause those runny noses and watery eyes we all hate in the Spring time.

01 Pollen Ricin-Sunf-1

These amazing photos were taken by Louisa Howard using an electron microscope and her whole collection can be found here if you want to further explore these bizarre microscopic grains.

Delving into the microscopic world provides a whole new level of wonder that is far beyond our own visual abilities. Beauty can be found in all areas of life, even within the very small. Work like this gives us the opportunity to peak into this incredible world we know so little about.

Interactive Cell Signalling Experience


The above url will send you to a website full of nice clear diagrams outlining the steps and molecules involved in lots of cell signalling pathways.
Some representations are a little more interactive than others, including the one I have linked to.
Aspects of processes outlined in this link are apoptosis (cell death), the degradation of cellular proteins via a pathway involving regulatory proteins called ubiquitin and respiration in the mitochondria.

The picture itself provides an interactive opportunity to see the 3D structure of these molecules involved and where these processes take place.

The way they have presented this cellular landscape is beautifully done and still maintains accuracy in terms of the processes and molecules involved. They are putting these really quite complex processes into a context that enables you to see more clearly what is going on and where it is happening in relation to other such processes.

I really enjoyed having a good explore through these diagrams and pictures and it is nice to see these pathways being represented in a new and exciting way.

National Geographic Pollen Photography

Found these amazing shots of pollen and pollination on National Geographic. Just a reminder of how intricately beautiful life can be. There is a whole microscopic world unavailable to our normal vision but these kinds of pictures allow us to peak into the world of the small.

Pollen — Photo Gallery — National Geographic Magazine

The above photo is by Martin Oeggerli and shows the pollen grains of a venus fly trap. The photo below, also by Oeggerli, shows small pollen grains (yellow) attached to the stigma of a geranium. This meeting will eventually lead to fertilisation of the plant.

Pollen — Photo Gallery — National Geographic Magazine

Another one of my favourites from this collection of photos is below and shows a single pollen grain of the Indian Mallow plant. It is covered in spikes which aid in attachment to bird feathers etc to enable dispersal of this pollen grain to other Indian Mallow plants.

Pollen — Photo Gallery — National Geographic Magazine

We may have stunning pieces of human made art but  it seems that we should start looking more into the world around us, and the visual beauty that surrounds us everyday.

Follow the link to see all of the amazing photos as I’ve only included a few favourites.

Pollen — Photo Gallery — National Geographic Magazine.

Are You A Slave To Your Inner Parasite?

You would think that you’re in total control of your thoughts and behaviours, but for some, this is not always the case..

These pretty pathetic looking purple things to the left are parasitic individuals known as Toxoplasma Gondii. The parasite causes Toxoplasmosis and can infect many hosts, but I will mainly be concentrating on the cat/rat life cycle and the potential to impact humans.

Basic Lifecycle of T. gondii:

Let’s start with the feline host. If an infected cat (pet or wild) defecates it releases oocysts into the environment. Oocysts are spores which contain the parasites; they can be very long lasting in the environment and become infective within a few days. If a rat comes along and ingests food contaminated with these oocysts, the parasite has entered its next host. Within the rat the oocysts quickly develop into tachyzoites which are the mobile and asexual form of the parasite shown here in the picture. These move through the rat until they locate neural or muscle tissue where they develop into bradyzoites (tissue cysts).

If this rat, containing potentially huge numbers of tissue cysts is ingested by the cat, the parasite has returned to another feline host. In the cat, the bradyzoites eventually develop into the oocysts and are released into the environment and so completing the life cycle.

For an illustrated version of the Toxoplasma Gondii life cycle or any other parasitic life cycle DPDx do great, visual diagrams.

Changing Behaviour

It is common to underestimate the effects single celled organisms can have on our health and wellbeing, I mean, what can one cell do that is so bad? Well the answer to that is A LOT. To help ensure that their life cycle is completed the parasites change the behaviour of the rat host. Rats have innate instincts and characteristics which cause them to avoid potential predators like cats. For example, if a rat can smell the odours given off by cats they will actively attempt to get as far away from this smell as possible or take shelter in a safe place. However, when infected with the Toxoplasmosis parasite this instinct changes, and rats instead are attracted to this smell and will persue it to get closer to the feline in question. So the parasite is actually changing the brain of the rat host so that its normal instincts are not only forgotten but also replaced by completely different and life threatening ones.

M. Berdoy,  J. P. Webster and D. W. Macdonald conducted a study investigating these behavioural changes brought about by the T. gondii parasite. The rats tended to show much more risky behaviour when infected with the parasite than without and in doing so increased their chances of being caught and eaten by a cat. These changes to the brain are considered to be the work of the bradyzoites in the neural tissue in the brain. By altering the behaviour of the rat host so that it is no longer as acutely aware of risky behaviour, places and stimuli means that the parasite is increasing its likelyhood of getting into its next host and surviving. The parasite has taken control of its host and is driving them to danger and potential death to ensure its long term success.

Changing Human Behaviour

The prevalence of Toxoplasmosis in the human population is between 20-80% depending on the region, which is potentially a very large proportion of some populations. It is predicted that roughly 80% of French people are infected, which is a huge amount of people. Cats are a hugely popular pet across the globe and have become one of the most widely invasive species in existence. With our relationship with cats becoming increasingly close the T. gondii parasite has found itself inside humans instead of its normal host range. Humans can become infected in a number of ways for example, by ingesting contaminated water or food (spores or cysts in undercooked meat), through organ transplants or from their mothers via the placenta.

alg_road-rageSo it comes to question whether these odd behavioural changes brought about by the parasite could potentially occur in us humans when infected. This concept has been studied quite a few times, but one good study was done by J. Flegr et al. in which they performed a personality test (specifically Cattell’s questionnaire) on 224 men and 170 women. They found that the men and women who did have Toxoplasmosis did have altered behaviour. The characteristics that were seen to change as a result of the infecti0n were “Superego strength” (conscientious, moralistic), “protension” (suspicious/ jealous), “affectothymia” (outgoing/ warm), “shrewdness” and a “high strength of self sentiment” (controlled/ over powering). These behaviours are being brought upon by the parasitic cysts found in the brain tissue and like in rats are leading to more risky behaviours. Another study by J. Flegr et al. looked further into this concept at more specific situations and found that people infected with T. gondii are significantly more likely to get involved in car crashes than uninfected people.

Toxoplasmosis in Foetuses:

Besides these personality changes, an infection with Toxoplasma has no serious effects on those infected unless you are immunosuppressed. The big issues come in pregnancy. A normal infection is controlled by cells of the adaptive immune response, including crucially, cytotoxic T cells. These act by destroying cells that are infected with the parasite and so regulate the infection. The problem is that foetuses do not have these cells as they cannot be passed from mother to foetus, but the parasites can. Therefore, the infection cannot be controlled in the unborn child and this can have severe effects. If the mother has a T.gondii infection before or soon after conception the foetus is in nearly all cases miscarried. If an infection occurs later in pregnancy the chance of still birth is hugely increased. If the child does survive birth it is likely that the child will soon die and if not they  generally will have impaired vision and severe learning difficulties.

As these effects are so severe there are measures in place to detect T. gondii infections so don’t worry too much! Women are routinely checked for the infection when pregnant. If a woman does have an infection it is generally caught before the parasite could have spread to the foetus. These women are given drugs like spiramycin to control the infection and decrease the chance of spread to the foetus.


So next time you’re feeling particularly aggressive or risky maybe take some time to consider whether it is in fact you driving these emotions or if your inner parasite is taking control..

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