Macabre Masterpiece Of Microbial Monsters: Part II
Updated: Jun 5
Back again to read another spooky segment of the macabre masterpiece of microbial monsters. Today, we are venturing off into the spooky forest of your darkest fears! We dive deep in the unknown, as we discuss werewolves, tumors and microbes...oh my!
Rabies lyssavirus - Werewolf
Stories of werewolves have been around since ancient times. Perhaps the oldest known Western prose featuring werewolves is in The Epic of Gilgamesh, but they have made a more profound appearance in both Greek and Nordic folklore.
Today, the most common depiction of werewolves are people who during a full moon morph into a ravenous wolf-human hybrid and are overcome with rage and blood lust. The transformation all starts after being bitten by a werewolf (and being lucky enough to have survived, if you can call that lucky?) There are many conditions that might have spawned these stories such as hypertrichosis (unusually long hair on the face and body), porphyra (sensitivity to light), or lycanthropy (believing you are an animal), but today we will discuss a microbial one, rabies.
What is Rabies?
Rabies is caused by an RNA virus. Just like a werewolf, if you are bitten by an infected animal you can get the disease. The RNA virus is called Lyssavirus and it is thought to have originated in Africa. While dogs, raccoons and squirrels are the most common creatures infected by rabies, any mammal is susceptible to the disease. In North America, the main vector of the disease is bats, but in other parts of the world, where rabies vaccines are not as widespread, dogs are the primary vector.
The virus itself resembles a bullet in shape with a spiky exterior of glycoproteins. In fact, the entire virus is made up of just 5 proteins. Once it is transmitted, the virus will shoot into the bloodstream and penetrate the host cells, transforming the cell, into a viral making factory, replicating and assembling new viral components. Once completed, many viral copies are assembled and burst out of the host cell.
Once symptoms appear, the disease almost always results in death. The virus finds its niches within the central nervous system of its host, multiplying within neurons. Rabies symptoms include fever, headache, nausea, agitation, aggression, anxiety, confusion, excessive salivation, insomnia, and hyperactivity just to name a few. So it's easy to see the parallels between this disease and the werewolves of folklore.
Interestingly, victims also develop hydrophobia, or the fear of water. It becomes so difficult to swallow water and many decide just not to drink at all. Violent spasms occur in the throat of rabies victims when they drink water which is the root of this hydrophobia.
Treatment for Rabies
If caught quickly enough, rabies can be prevented with a vaccine. The vaccine needs to be given as soon as exposure is thought to happen. Additional doses are often given on days 3, 7 and 14 according to the CDC. Receiving the vaccine is horrible and painful but if not treated the disease will progress quite quickly, with deadly consequences.
Unlike becoming a werewolf, there are a few treatments that give rabies victims hope of returning back to their old self. The “Milwaukee Protocol” is in experimental treatment for rabies where the patient is sent into a chemically induced coma and given antiviral drugs. Unsurprisingly, this protocol was first used in the town for which it is named after, Milwaukee, by Rodney Willoughby Jr. However, “hope” may be a strong word. Many who are given the treatment still die, only a few have ever survived rabies.
And to close up this wild werewolf, rabies, bat segment we will tell one more story. That, of course, would be on Ozzy Osborne, who quite stupidly bit the head off a bat, while on stage, to entertain his people. Why a fan thought it was a good idea to bring a potentially rabid unconscious or dead bat to a public concert is beyond me. And so our “prince of darkness” was immediately escorted to get rabies shots as a preventative measure.
Agrobacterium tumefaciens - Warts
Witch’s warts, deformities, blemishes, and oddities hold a decaying place in our halloween traditions as societal stigmas are being replaced with acceptance and respect. But the ghoulish glow of wart filled gourds and the blistering blemishes of porch adorned pumpkins hold as steady decorations during the cooling months. While not attributed to any particular “monster” these “ugly and weird” misfit veggies are still seen in our October festivities.
Our next monstrous microbe, you may have actually seen in your yard or in a park. Have you ever seen a tree with a giant tumor like deformity? It usually produces a large circular mass on the trunk. This is usually the product of Agrobacterium tumefaciens.
In nature, Agrobacterium tumefaciens causes strange deformities, a tumor like orb that causes trees and roots of all kinds to grow out in all directions. The disease is called crown gall. It begins when A. tumefaciens injects a piece of its DNA into the host and the host incorporates this foreign DNA with its own.
The foreign DNA forces the plant to produce these tumor or gall deformities that secrete opines. What’s the benefit for the microbe? Opines are like candy to A. tumefaciens; it can feast on them for days.
A. tumefaciens: Scientist Greatest Tool
Where does this microbe come from? It occurs naturally in the soil. In this way A. tumefaciens possess a split personality, one to live freely in the soil and one to live parasitically within the plant. Manipulating the host for its own survival.
Interestingly, this parasitic bacteria that causes these deformities on a wide variety of plants is actually one of scientists’ greatest biotechnological tools. Because of its ability to inject DNA straight into the host cells, it is used in a biotechnology to make genetically modified plants.
However, the ability to form a tumor in a plant is not what scientists are after. They are able to manipulate these microbial mechanisms to genetically modify plants for the benefit of humanity. Scientists are able to remove the genes that cause crown gall and insert genes more to their liking such as disease resistant genes in their place.
This engineered A. tumefaciens is then placed into the plant where it injects its DNA into the young host and the host will incorporate this DNA into its own. If the plant incorporates these genes successfully, it will now be resistant to a particular disease.
This has a whole slew of applications; plants which are resistant to disease will require less pesticides or insecticides, making them better for you and the planet.
In addition, with fewer diseased plants, a farmer’s crop can be more bountiful, producing more food and less wasted crop helping to feed the farmer, their family, and the planet! I’ll bet there’s not as much use for that wart with the hair growing out of a witch’s nose!
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