Microbial Monsters: Unknown Ghosts & Microbial Vampires
Updated: Jun 5, 2021
Welcome to a special spooky blog of Microbigals! Over the course of October, we will release some of the spookiest microbes we know of. We aren’t talking about horrible, deadly microbes (although some are). We are talking about microbes that remind us of our favorite Halloween monsters. From ghosts, to goblins, to vampires, you can find them all in this super special and spooky edition of Microbigal’s Monstrous Microbes!
Today, we will discuss 2 monstrous microbes that resemble or have inspired some of our most beloved Halloween monsters: ghosts and vampires. So without further adieu, enter our macabre microbial dungeon!
1. Millions of Unknown Microbes - Ghost
Ghosts have got to be one of the oldest and most beloved Halloween
characters. From the paranormal of Poltergeist to everyone’s favorite friendly ghost Casper, to your forever companion at the end of The Haunted Mansion at Disney. Ghost stories are told all around the world and they hold fascination for all ages, and ghosts come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
Ghost stories don’t just surround us on Halloween, they haunt us throughout our human history. From the presence of paranormal energy at the bloodiest battle of the Civil War at Gettysburg, to the ghostly haunting of English royalties like Anne Boleyn and Mary, Queen of Scots at the Tower of London. Seeing the unseen can have life altering effects, forever bridging you to the phantom realm.
I’ve been to Gettysburg and the Tower of London, but have yet to see a ghost. I have, however, had my life altered by seeing into the unseen world; the world of microbiology. For centuries, biologists have attempted to describe the biological diversity of our home planet, but it has proved to be an impossible feat, like explaining the unexplainable.
While people have told ghost stories since the beginning of storytelling, it’s really only been in the last few hundred years that we’ve even proved microbes are real. So many microbes go unnoticed, undiscovered simply because we don’t know what to look for or have the technologies to detect them.
Without a microbial lens, it’s estimated that the Earth is home to 10 million species. However, when you look through this lens, this estimate is only 1% of the total species that inhabit this planet; that’s right, taking into account microbes, we are talking about 1 trillion species on earth! To put that in a little bit of perspective, if every person who’s ever lived was a ghost, that’s only 100 billion lost souls.
Like ghost hunters using spectral energy detectors and other devices to see into a world beyond that which our eyes can discern, scientists started to figure out ways to see microbes. By growing them on agar, commonly known as media, (a semi-gelatinous substance filled with sugars, and a carbon food for our microbial friends).
The "Great Plate Anomaly"
It was thought that we had opened the creaky door to the haunted mansion of the microscopic world, but many microbes can be picky eaters, they won’t grow on media without the optimal conditions. For some, the optimal conditions means they won’t grow alone or need very specific nutrients, making it nearly impossible to discover them when we don’t know what they like to eat.
After hundreds of years of using this tactic, despite making changes to the agar to meet the microbes’ needs, it’s thought we can only culture 1% of all microbial species. In microbiology we call this the “great plate count anomaly.” Which is a little spooky in and of itself.
The microbes and ghosts we hear the most about are the ones that haunt and torture us, everyone loves a scary story! But these pathogens, and ghouls are likely just a small portion of what exists out there.
The majority of microbes and ghosts may go unnoticed because we don’t yet have the means to discover them, but that feeling of a presence of paranormal activity or a metabolic activity that can’t be explained (commensals, and the spirit world), will keep us striving to discover more about them.
We’ve already found that there are indeed friendly ghosts and microbes which bring us joy and wonder at a glimpse into a world beyond our understanding and may even help us (beneficial microbes and Casper)!
2. Borrelia burgdorferi - Vampires
Vampires have evolved throughout our history, changing in how they act and appear, but one thing always remains consistent, they drink human blood.
Bram Stoker’s novel Count Dracula is the most popular vampire figure. Count Dracula was likely modeled off a real life person, Vlad the Impaler, a brutal resident of Transylvania from 1456-1462. He was known for impaling his victims with a wooden stake and to dip his bread in the blood of his dying victim. Not everyone believes Vlad was the inspiration for Dracula, but it’s hard to not see the similarities.
Borrelia burgdorferi does not suck your blood, nor can it be killed by driving a stake through it, but it is vectored by blood sucking pests. While there are many blood sucking pests that act as a vector for a variety of microbial diseases, there’s something about Borrelia burgdorferi that is so captivating. I would argue no blood bite vectored pathogen is quite so intriguing as Borrelia burgdorferi, the causal agent of Lyme disease.
Like the vampires of Transylvania, Lyme disease was mostly endemic, primarily occurring in the upper midwestern and northeastern United States. However, like our Twilight vampires a decade ago, it is emerging as a dangerous epidemic, becoming one of the fastest growing infectious diseases in the US. The CDC reports 300,000 people are infected each year with Lyme disease; 25% being children.
Ticks are found predominantly in the woods and on long grasses. As people have been flocking to the woods this year to leave their houses but escape the “crowds” I would suspect 2020 might see an even greater increase in Lyme disease than we’ve ever seen before. If you're going outside or in the woods, always make sure you check for ticks afterwards on yourself, your kids and especially your fur babies! Trust me, Lyme disease is not something you want to have.
Characteristics of Borrelia burgdorferi
Vampires are generally depicted as tall, slender and pale creatures, having a very distinct silhouette. Borrelia burgdorferi also has a distinct shape, in microbiology we call the shape of a microbe its morphology. The morphology of this microbe is called spirochete, being long, slender and spiral or corkscrew-like. This is one of the rarer morphologies compared to cocci (circular) and bacillus (rod) shapes.
Some vampiric legends depict shape-shifting vampires, with the ability to turn into bats, Borrelia also goes through a shape-shift. Once the spirochete (corkscrew) microbe is injected into the human through a blood meal of a tick, it goes through a transformation. We call this an antigenic change where it changes its outer layer to favor humans and sheds its tick coat. This transformation can take about 36 hours, so if the microbe is caught before the disease can be prevented. So like our classic vampires, these microbes need to seamlessly exist in two different worlds both within it’s insect host and its human one.
While vampirism is easy to detect, you know, long fangs, pale skin, not going out in the daylight or able to be seen in a mirror, Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose, because the microbe is so elusive and the disease can manifest differently in different people. Generally, at the onset of transmission there is a red ring or target that surrounds the site of the bite. Fever, headaches, heart and central nervous system conditions can all ensue. Late stages of the disease can manifest as arthritis, encephalopathy or chronic encephalomyelitis. For those infected with this nasty microbe, life-long medical issues may exist forever, even with treatment!
For More Monstrous Microbes Check Out These Blogs!