Microbial Mummies and The Moldy Rye That Creates Witches
Updated: Jun 5
Have we hit your favorite Halloween character yet? If not, there is a good chance we will today. We will talk about two characters that remind me of both the west coast and the east coast of America. Today it’s all about Botox (looking at you Trophy wives of Orange County) and Witches (where are my Salem witch hunters at?).
Clostridium Botulinum - Mummies
Now if you're thinking wait a minute, Botox isn’t Halloween, you are correct. But it always reminded me of cartoon depictions of mummies. Botox is derived from a microbe that causes paralysis, hence the inability to move your face too much after treatment. And so we pair Clostridium botulinum with mummies.
Unlike many of our previous monsters, Frankenstein, werewolves, Dracula, mummies are real; they aren’t a mere hyperbole of reality but rooted in ancient Egyptian traditions.
Real mummies are often wrapped in bandages and have been preserved in such a way that it will not decay, even for thousands of years like the Egyptian Pharaohs. Now there’s a microbiome I would like to analyze, but this story is not about that.
The Egyptians believed this process would allow you to live forever in the afterlife, and disturbing a Pharaoh’s tomb - as we so often have - would release the “curse of the pharaohs”. Mix this with a little magic and imagination, and BAM. you have a stiff-legged walking powerful undead being filled with vengeance for disturbing their afterlife.
The stiff legged walking undead reminds me of a rare, but well known food poisoning that many purposefully inject to avoid saggy cheeks. This microbe would, of course, be Clostridium botulinum, the causal agent of botulism and the reason we have Botox.
While Botox is generally regarded as safe, contracting botulism can be deadly. Although rare, the mortality rate is quite high and can cause difficulty breathing, muscle paralysis and even death.
C. botulinum can be found basically everywhere from soil to marine environments and, for the most part, are harmless. C. botulinum are among the bacteria that can form spores; when the environment is unfavorable or harmful to the bacteria they can retreat inward forming a capsule or spore to protect themselves until the world becomes a little less hostile. Bet you wish you could make a spore until after the election! (But please, go vote!)
Toxins and Diseases
Botulism and Botox are actually caused by a toxin which is produced by the microbe. To produce the toxin, C. botulinum needs the right conditions. Here are the prime conditions. C. botulinum will produce the toxin when there is low acid, low sugar, low salt, and low oxygen. Can you guess where in our food industry this might occur?
If you ever done any home canning, you probably already know. Cases of botulism are often seen when people eat fermented foods which have not been properly canned.
Canning is a great way to preserve excess food and is often a great source of probiotics (good gut bacteria). But always make sure that if you're not experienced you research thoroughly and do it correctly!
C. botulinum doesn’t just produce one toxin...it produces 7 different kinds. Luckily, their naming system is pretty simple, they are simply named toxin A- toxin G. The most relevant toxins to humanity are toxin A, B, and E. These toxins cling to the nerve endings that connect to muscles, preventing them from contracting, limiting movement and causing paralysis.
Other Uses of Botox
As mentioned before, the common drug, Botox, is derived from this toxin, but it’s not just for women trying to keep their skin tight and lifted, it also has a number of therapeutic uses as well. Some conditions that are treated with Botox include: improving severe underarm sweating, treating uncontrollable blinking, chronic migraines and an overactive bladder.
Rye Bread Mold - The Salem Witch Trials
We can’t do a Halloween round-up without mentioning witches, and their time has finally come! And like our botulism post, this one is more based in reality then in fiction...which in my opinion makes it spookier!
A Brief History Of The Salem Witch Trials
So let’s go back to Salem in the summer of 1692, in the time before the United States existed. There were just 13 colonies, and Boston was still growing into the bustling city we know today. Just outside Boston was a little town called Salem where 2 girls (age 9 and 11) claimed to be possessed by the devil causing mass hysteria. This resulted in the brutal and unethical murders of 18 (some say more) “witches” in colonial Massachusetts.
This was a traumatic time for the young colonies; they didn’t quite know where their place in the world was. Science was nearly non-existent and, much like today, politics drove the masses to hysteria. Or maybe it was bread…..
Regardless of the root cause of the Salem Witch Trials, whether for political gain or, quite literally, from the root of rye, it’s completely horrifying how far this hunt went….That is of course until you look at our our current situation with the pandemic and the election and it becomes oh too familiar (Get out and VOTE!).
Yet, to be driven to madness over the words of two tweens seems utterly absurd; what were they all on, drugs? Some people think so….
The Ergot Hypothesis
So what does microbes have to do with it? Some believe that the witch hysteria was actually brought on by a microbe, a fungi to be more specific. This was not a microbe that turns you into a witch, or compels a witch to turn you into a newt, but one that causes hallucinations, fits, muscle spasms, and convulsions.
Very witchy behavior indeed. This of course would be the theory that ergot, a fungal blight commonly found in rye bread, was the culprit of this madness.
This theory was first proposed in 1976 by Linda Caporael. So, how does one little microbe cause mass hysteria and manipulate a town to turn against itself? It’s all about the right conditions; for ergot this includes a severe winter and a damp spring.
Ergot, or sometimes called “St. Anthony’s fire”, is caused by Claviceps purpurea. Often, spores are carried by wind until they find their new rye plant home. They reside in the ovaries of the plant, where they form hyphae and candida. Once it starts to grow in the plant C. purpurea produces sclerotia, or ergot, which are purple-black growths that contain ergotamine and lysergic acid, and replace the normal grains.
To put this in a little bit of perspective, one of the most hallucinogenic drugs, LSD stands for lysergic acid diethylamide, which is derived from the lysergic acid produced by C. purpurea. Forget LSD, and go organic rye for your high! You don’t actually want to do this because the sickly side effects can be ghastly and if someone thinks you are a witch you could wind up dead!
The End Of The Salem Witch Hunts
Cotton Mather, warned against this hysteria to not much avail. Many believe there were political hands at play that also drove this event. Mather would find himself once more on the right side of another public outbreak some 30 years later. However, his efforts in the subsequent smallpox outbreak, with the help of Onesimus, the slave whose story helped stop smallpox, was taken only slightly more seriously.
The intensity of the Salem Witch Trials lasted throughout the summer, but started to lose interest by the fall and by 1693 the whole thing was over. Were they all eating poisonous bread all summer? Do the hallucinations of ergot really make you point to specific people in your town as witches?
The End Of The Ergot Theory
The answer is of course not! But ergotism could have aided in the witch hunt, giving people reason to accuse each other. It should be noted that the ergot theory is just that, a theory. And it’s actually not accepted by all historians, although it's hard to tell these specifics from so long ago.
Many historians do not believe in this theory, as there were great political pressures that could also be driving and enhancing this hysteria of 1692. While the symptoms and conditions were ideal for ergotism, there are many discrepancies in the theory. For one, only a few girls seemed to be affected - if the crop was affected, you’d suspect the whole town to be stoned, not just a few tweens pointing fingers at those less fortunate than them.
Regardless, it’s enough of a theory to make the excuse to write about witches on my scicomm blog. Hope you enjoyed it. Oh and one more thing, on catching witches...
We all know how to really find a witch: witches burn and so does wood thus they are made out of wood. Wood also floats on water, as well as ducks. Thus you must weigh the suspected witch, if they weigh the same as a duck they are made out of wood which burns and therefore…….A WITCH! Just be careful not to be turned into a newt. Witch hunting can be very dangerous.
For More Monstrous Microbes Check Out These Blogs!