28 June 2007

Charismatic Microfauna

For the past several months, OMSI has been running something it calls Science Pubs. To me, the ex-librarian, a "science pub" is a scholarly journal. But this is Portland, and science pubs equate to monthly gatherings at Bridgeport Brewpub in NW where you order an adult beverage and something to eat, then settle in and listen to an expert in some branch of science discuss his or her field of interest.

This week, our neighbor Jay, who teaches microbiology at Reed, talked about e coli and infectious disease outbreaks caused by contaminated food. His presentation was called Spinach on the side: e coli in our lives. I learned the following: 1. The bacteria on and in the human body outnumbers the cells in the human body itself. 2. e coli 157 is the bad e coli; it's a much more complex organism than the good e coli that live in our intestines. 3. What actually makes you sick is shiga toxin, which is genetically encoded in a virus contained in the e-157 bacterium. A bacterium packin' a virus; no wonder it's so nasty.

Jerry did well in the food-borne disease trivia quiz that preceded Jay's presentation, and won this adorable plush e coli. It's sort of like winning a stuffed animal at the county fair, but employing a different skill set. I first heard the phrase "charismatic megafauna" from a biologist who explained that big brown eyes go a long way to making cows, ponies and puppies so appealing. I doubt that e coli actually have eyes, but this little guy is cute enough to have earned a place in our house. In the kitchen, of course.

By the way, I ordered the spinach salad at Bridgeport the other night. So did Jay. I guess that particular outbreak is history.

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