Microscopy Preview

Intentional food microbiology:
Various yogurt bacteria floating amid milk protein and fat globules

UNintentional food microbiology:
Wet-mount photomicrograph showing mold mycelia and a mass that kind of looks like large spore cases or something

I still don’t feel like I got nearly enough productive stuff done this weekend, but I did manage to do a bit of microscopy – plus demonstrating to myself that I still remember how to do a “Gram stain”. Real Post with explanation and more pictures to follow Real Soon Now…

Yummy mold!

Fuzzy mold growing in a petri dishYes, I mean “mold” as in “fuzzy fungus”, not as in “something you put JellO® in to harden into a funny shape”. I’m not even talking about “Blue Cheese”, though blue cheese is pretty good too. I’m actually referring to Fusarium venenatum.

Okay, the picture linked here is actually F. oxysporum, one of several Fusarium species that are crop diseases (mmmmm, rotted moldy potatoes…), but I haven’t found a picture of a F. venenatum culture yet. Anyway, before going to bed I just wanted to mention that I’ve run into the first genuinely good “meat substitute” that I’ve tasted so far, and it’s made of mold.

They evidently grow it in vats, dry it into mats, mix it with some egg white to hold it together, and then make meat-like food product out of it. “They” being Astra-Zeneca, who appear to be the owners of the “Quorn®” trademark.

The chicken-like food product (“Chik’n”) patties they make are actually passable imitations of chicken, and actually taste good. They make a breaded Gruyere-“Chik’n” patty thing that I will probably go out and buy more of, of my own free will – which will be a first for “vegetarian” food for me.

Makes me wonder what I’d get if I subjected another known edible mold like Penicillium roquefortii (Mmmmmm…Blue Cheese) to the same process. Would I get blue “meat”?…

And, no, I’m not actually a paid shill for Astra-Zeneca or Marlowe Foods (who distribute the “Quorn®” products), though as I mentioned a while back to the dairy industry in my “Margarine makes you stupid” post, if anyone wants to HIRE me as a paid shill independent advocate, I could sure (yes, still) use a good microscope. Come on, Astra-Zeneca! A fancy biotech company such as yourselves must surely have dozens of surplus microscopes laying around!…

“A small modification of Koch’s plating method.”

Only two more days for the Classic Papers Challenge, so if I’m going to get any more up, I’d better get my butt in gear.

Here’s a nice easy one:

Petri, R. J.:”Eine kleine Modification des Koch’schen Plattenverfahrens.” Centralblatt für Bacteriologie und Parasitenkunde; 1887; Vol. 1, pages 279-280.

The American Society for Microbiology has a translation available online. It’s only about a page-and-a-half of relatively large type – check it out.

There’s a trick we microbiologists use for growing bacteria. You make a solid (but wet) surface that contains whatever nutrients the microbe (bacteria, archaea, yeasts, mold spores…) you’re interested in need, and then you spread a diluted mixture of the microbe on it. The idea is that since the surface is solid the microbes can’t move around too much, and at any spot where a single cell starts initially, a whole pile of that cell and it’s genetically-identical (non-sexually-produced) clone-children will form until it gets big enough to see without a microscope. This cell-pile is called a “colony”, and you can poke or rub it with a sterile object, then stick the object into a sterile nutrient source. The end result is you have a “pure” culture of microbes that are effectively genetically identical. The solid material could be a lot of things – I’ve seen references to using slices of potato – though these days agar-agar gel mixed with nutrients is the preferred substance.

Koch (that is, Robert Koch of “Koch’s Postulates” fame, not Ed Koch the former mayor of New York City) used gelatin (so, hey, here’s another thing you can do with your expired Jell-O®). He apparently used to have a stack of shallow bowls, and had to use a special pouring device to carefully dump the gelatin into each stacked bowl in turn, then cover the works with a bell jar in order to keep stuff from falling into them from the air and contaminating them.

This was kind of a pain to work with, so some clever guy named Julius came up with a modification of this method in 1887, using pairs of shallow dishes, one slightly larger than the other so that it could be turned upside down to use as a lid. Then, you don’t necessarily need the bell jar, and you don’t need to stack them so they’re easier to pour.

Julius Robert Petri’s idea was so useful that we still use it today. Oh, yeah, and they named the dish-and-lid combination after him.

How’s that for a “classic” paper?

Meanwhile, my “Mountain Dew® Wine” project is turning out to be substantially more educational and fascinating than I’d hoped. There seems to be a decent amount of information available on how benzoic acid affects yeasts. I intend to turn that into a post later, but first I’ll try to find at least one more old paper to post before tomorrow is over…

What really counts as a “microbe”?

Just a brief pre-post before the main one I’ve got brewing now (which will be posted either later today or tomorrow).

A tapeworm: Since when does 30-36 feet long count as 'micro'???Microbiology is the dominating topic of this particular blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever addressed what I consider to really count as “micro”biology. This isn’t necessarily an obvious topic. My old “Microbiology” book from 8 years ago, plus the textbook from last year’s “Pathogenic Microbiology” class both contained large sections discussing organisms that are visible without a microscope. Heck, the “Pathogenic Microbiology” text even had a whole section on spider and insect bites. And, tapeworms? Since when is “over 30 feet long” considered “micro”? As I like to say: It’s time for Microbiology to grow up and move out of Medicine’s basement.

So: Here are the defining features of what I consider to be a “microbe”, at least for purposes of what I tend to discuss here on the blog:

  • Obvious: the organism cannot be effectively examined visually without a microscope and individual organisms can virtually never be observed by the “naked eye”.
  • In nature, a full normal population of a microbe can and will develop from a single live cell, and isolated individual cells are reasonably commonly observed.
  • Microbes do not “eat”.

It’s that last point that prompted me to write this post, mainly because it’s such an important part of why microbes work and how they affect their surroundings, especially when it comes to food microbes. What I mean by “do not eat” is that they are incapable of taking large (microbially speaking) chunks of material into themselves to use. Any cell nutrient for a microbe must be in the form of small molecules, like sugars, small peptides or individual amino acids, and so on that can be easily transported across the cell membranes and through the cell wall where applicable.

The importance of this is that for a microbe to grow on a complicated substance like meat or bread (for example), they have to excrete specialized enzymes that break down the substances out in the environment into simpler components like sugars or small peptides. If a microbe cannot secrete a protein-digesting “protease” enzyme, it can be surrounded by tasty, nutritious proteins and still starve to death. If a microbe can’t secrete an amylase (starch-digesting) enzyme, it doesn’t matter that starch is made of nice yummy glucose molecules because they’re all wadded up into long chains of starch that the microbe can’t get at.

And that, finally, is important because it brings up issues of growing multiple microbes together to accomplish something. Sake, for example, is made by fermenting rice, but rice is made primarily of starch. Saccharomyces yeasts don’t make amylases, so in order to make sake, you also have to add a kind of mold (Aspergillus oryzae, one of the types of white-mold-with-little-black-specks that you may see growing on the bread you’ve left sitting around for too long). A. oryzae is also a microbe and therefore can’t “eat”, but it does produce amylase. Since the amylase is breaking down the starches outside of the cells, this means the released glucose is also available for the yeast to use.

Admittedly, my definition above isn’t perfect. On the one hand, it leaves out protozoa (like amoebae and the well-known Paramecium, both of which actually do take in “chunks” of food, but both of which most people would normally consider to be “microbes”. It also leaves IN things like mushrooms, which are not usually thought of as being “microbes” by people who aren’t microbiologists. And, of course, it leaves me with no excuse not to go and learn something about eukaryotic (“plant”) algae (as opposed to bacteria-algae, a.k.a. cyanobacteria) and diatoms. Suggestions for updating my definition may be left in the comments…

Just something that came up while I was assembling what will be the next post. Stay tuned.