A series of tubes

internet arrow
internet by j f grossen (2008) CC BY-NC 2.0 , on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/4obWYe

The internets, begins a gravitas-laden narration, are a series of tubes filled with cats.

Oh hai. You’re ordered some internet? Oliver in Tunnel Closeup by Mr.TinDC (2010) CC BY-ND 2.0 on Flickr

Or something like that.

Despite not being too clear on how it works (or compromises my privacy or threatens Western democracy), I love the internet and social media. I’m clearly addicted to the dopamine hits from all the likes, comments and retweets.  I use the online sense of “community” to substitute for actual human interactions. I’m very lucky to have curated various feeds full of very smart people* (or maybe they’re bots?) who share information (articles, essays, videos) that proves interesting to me.

Some of them end up as fodder for more blog posts. Some I share for the amusement and edification of others! But most of all, they feed my dopamine habit.

In Wired, Matt Simon compares the brain chemistry of human compulsive internet scrolling to how parasitic wasps zombify their insect hosts. The subjective sensation of this internet intoxication is akin to what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes as “flow.” Per Wikipedia,

flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.

I would argue there are few things more delicious that being so completely absorbed in something (a book, a task, etc) that you forget everything else around you. When you come back to yourself from a flow state, when you’ve knitted a sweater or finished a novel or eaten an entire bag of that Chicago-style popcorn, you at least feel like you’ve
accomplished something! With the internet, though, there are just miles and miles of scrolling (and hitting “reload” on your analytics page) left before one can sleep.

Not only is the pleasure of internet madness illusory: Most likely, so are the “people” I encounter and the clicks and comments they make on my site. In New York Magazine, Max Read describes how much of what we think of as the Internet (traffic, clicks, retweets) is fake, generated by spam-bots and click-farms.

Does it really matter that spam-bots are the largest part of my appreciative audience? Normally, spam comments are mostly gibberish with some suspicious links. Akismet is excellent at flagging them and I take great enjoyment from reading (and deleting) them from my spam queue. Recently, however, I have received several “Flatter-bot” messages in my spam queue that are more cogent than usual, leaving compliments or asking for advice.

Khalil writes, “Admiring the time and energy you put into your site and in depth information you offer. It’s nice to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same out of date rehashed information. Wonderful read! I’ve bookmarked

Corinne says, “I am really enjoying the theme/design of your site.
Do you ever run into any web browser compatibility issues?
A small number of my blog readers have complained about my site not operating
correctly in Explorer but looks great in Firefox. Do you have any advice to help fix this issue?”

Jim exclaims, “Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular article! It is the little changes which will make the largest changes. Thanks a lot for sharing! I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Exceptionally well written! I’ll immediately
take hold of your rss feed as I can not to find your email subscription hyperlink or e-newsletter service. Do you’ve any? Please permit me recognize in order that I could subscribe.”

Aww, thanks, Flatter-bots! Maybe I’ll keep you after all.

AI Researcher Janelle Shane trains neural networks to generate names for cookie recipes, guinea pigs and paint colors, with very entertaining results.

I’m not sure if this is akin to how bots generate comment spam, but it would certainly be more entertaining that random sketchy links or personal attacks.

Past Passenger Pigeon

Ectopistes migratorius (Linnaeus, 1766) – passenger pigeon (extinct) (mount, public display, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Ilinois, USA).
James St. John (2011) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

We have a passenger pigeon at work. Well, technically it is a stuffed passenger pigeon, preserved in a glass case with other taxidermied bird specimens, in one of our classroom spaces. A plaque, “Gift of So and So, 1985,” discreetly emblazons a corner of the case. The birds are a bit dusty and faded, the passenger pigeon itself has bluish gray feathers with pinkish breast, a shape familiar from the mourning doves and urban pigeons we see around town.

Since last passenger pigeon died in captivity in 1914, I know at least *one* of the birds is over 100 years old, not sure about the others. However, the stuffed passenger pigeon is unique among its preserved fellow specimens of North American birds: Its species is extinct.

I vaguely remember learning about extinction as a kid, because…DINOSAURS. (Were they particularly smelly, dinosaurs? Stink-ed? Was that why they all disappeared?)

A life-sized Stegosaurus model in the Third Planet exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum by Evan Howard (2016) CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The spine plates on the stegosaurus model at the Milwaukee Public Museum reminded child-me of the discarded leaves of beloved steamed artichokes (“Look, Ma! Dinosaur peels!”) (Aside: Man, I was a weird kid.)

The poor stuffed passenger pigeon is a kind of species memento mori. “Remember, humans. Your kind shall also eventually perish from the Earth.” Species extinction (hopefully after a good run of a few million years) is a natural part of the evolutionary process. All the cool geological time divisions (Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, etc) are named for observed changes in the fossil species that appear in their rock layers.

But it’s hard not to feel the dusty glass-eyed gaze of the stuffed passenger pigeon as an accusation. Unlike the dinosaurs (who were ultimately doomed by a combination of massive volcanic eruptions, asteroid strike and climate disruption), our modern extinctions can be traced to human destruction of these species’ habitats and populations.

In the New York Times opinion section, philosophy professor Todd May wonders if human extinction would be such a tragedy after all? On the surface, there is a certain poetic justice about it: a) Humans are responsible for other species’ extinction and b) Our wanton destruction of ecosystems only seems to hasten our own species’ demise.

The bulk of the essay hinges on the definition of tragedy (as in Shakespeare), with humanity as the Tragic Hero: “It is humanity that is committing a wrong, a wrong whose elimination would likely require the elimination of the species, but with whom we might be sympathetic nonetheless.”

Poetic justice aside, there is something that is deeply depressing about arguing that (imminent )human extinction is potentially a good thing.
When thinking about the extinction of charismatic megafauna, or rare plants, or even bacteria, we humans have created reasons for why we should save endangered species. These boil down to “Diverse forms of living organisms are valuable to humans. By saving them, we benefit ourselves.” Yet, it doesn’t really answer “What is the inherent value of species? What is the inherent value of humanity?”

On a personal level, everyone I know and love (and even those I don’t) are part of this human planetary experiment. It’s one thing to wax poetic about the romance of extinction on geological time scales. As a human on a human time scale, this awareness of our species’ complicity in other extinctions (and potentially our own) is sad and terrifying. Were the dinosaurs aware their time was coming to an end? Their species extinctions took thousands to millions of years. Were the photosynthetic cyanobacteria of the Paleoproterozoic Oxygenation Event aware their exhalations were rusting the whole planet? Maybe our unique awareness is the guilt we are trying to assuage by grimly examining our own end.

Ambivalently applauding the extinction of humanity is provocative (and cynically satisfying). Yet I think it’s still a fringe philosophical position within the scientific community. Most environmental advocates are firmly in the “Campaign to Save the Humans” camp (with apologies to the late Douglas Adams & the intergalactic dolphins).
Concern for how issues like climate change and persistent environmental endocrine disruptors aren’t theoretical, but directly linked to humanity’s future survival.


R. Alexander Pyron on Protecting Homo Sapiens in the Washington Post.

Nathan J. Robinson Against Human Extinction in Current Affairs.

Extinct Mammals of the Pleistocene at Twilight Beasts

A New History of Life by Peter Ward & Joe Kirschvink (2015)

That spider is my roommate!

House spider – Tegenaria duellica by richard pigott (2011) CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9uBtdd

I’ve noticed this piece from March 2017 making the rounds on social media this week: If spiders worked together, they could eat all humans in a year. The hyperbolic headline plus a winsome picture of googly-eyed jumping spider clearly induce frissons of revulsion (and clicks!) in many human readers.

Fellow humans, we do not need to worry about the arachnid uprising just yet! 1)Compared to humans, spiders are tiny and fragile *AND* 2)They are not that organized.

The point was that spiders are worthy of human consideration and respect because of their huge effect on biomass (i.e. consumption of insects). For tiny, albeit numerous, creatures, they have a significant effect on our ecosystems.

One of the challenges I encounter as an environmental educator is how to teach respect (also: curiosity, love, awe) for the natural world. This includes the slimy, the wiggly and the multi-legged denizens of our planet. I have encountered humans who are genuinely phobic of arthropods, as well as those who gleefully enjoy crushing them. The goal of nature interpretation is helping participants forge a positive emotional connection to a place and to the organisms that live there. Especially with younger friends, I like to think of it as cultivating empathy for other living beings.

Working in Jewish camp & outdoor settings, we would often teach the midrash of David and the Spider. In the story, a tiny spider builds her web across the mouth of a cave where David is hiding from his pursuers, shielding him from detection. For the rest of his days, as the King of Israel, David declared none should harm a spider, for a spider once saved his life.

Did telling this story actually change kids’ attitudes towards small arthropods? My immediate goal was to introduce an emotional connection (the spider saved a humans life!) which would prevent kids from squishing spiders. I’m not sure to what extent we are a) socialized and b) hardwired to react to an unfamiliar being with revulsion, fear and violence.

But it only once you forge an initial emotional connection (“Interesting!” instead of “Ewww!”), that humans can also appreciate the rational reasons (spiders generally won’t hurt you, spiders are helpful to humans by eating insects, spiders are the amazing results of millions of years of evolution) for protecting a spider’s bodily integrity.

When I lead hikes in the woods, I urge participants to stay on the trail (“the part with dirt and rocks”) to avoid stepping on the homes of plants and animals. “This is their home,” I tell them, “and we are just visiting.”

Even when we find spiders in own houses, I think it is important to recognize the following: 1)They were here first and 2) There are a lot more of them than there are of us. And just in case the spiders *are* merely tolerating our presence before a mass arachnid uprising, it was nice knowing you.


Matt Bertone on why spiders are great roommates.

Sleep Assistant by Pleumier on Instagram.

Grandma Fish

On the internet, no one knows you’re a fish. Tiktaalik restoration by Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation (Courtesy: National Science Foundation) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As a modern human who lives on the internet, I sometimes feel disconnected from other humans (my family, internet people, people in real life.) Current events make it easy to want to write off the rest of humanity and throw your lot in with forest creatures.

Except the humans and the forest creatures (and fungi, bacteria, and also the abiotic rocks and water) are all inextricably tangled together.

I was recently reading a Scientific American blog post, in which Scott Barry Kaufman explores how a secular belief in oneness affects how people relate to the world around them.
“In general, those who hold a belief in oneness have a more inclusive identity that reflects their sense of connection with other people, nonhuman animals, and aspects of nature that are all thought to be part of the same ‘one thing.

This idea appealed to my ecological sensibility (“Everyone eats! Everyone breathes!”),and spiritual tendencies cultivated as a Jewish environmental educator. Recognizing plants and animals as fellow living organisms, equally worthy of respect, makes me feel less lonely in the world.

Other creatures aren’t just fellow travelers, they’re Family. The PBS Special Your Inner Fish, based on the book by Neil Shubin, traces human anatomical lineage from the first fish (tetrapod) who crawled onto land.

Tiktaalik at Field Museum, Chicago by Eduard Solà (2012) CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons

The researchers named the fossil specimen “Tiktaalik, a 375 million year old transitional organism somewhere between a fish and an amphibian. Looking at the animations of the ancient bones, I couldn’t help thinking, “Wow, that’s my grandma!”

Though my literal grandmothers (of blessed memory) would be laughing their heads off at the idea, this fish represents an a direct, familial link from humans to the rest of 4 legged creatures.

Maybe this heritage is linked to the frequency which I often feel like a fish out of water. The awkwardness is baked right in by the millions of years of evolution, folks!

And if you want to go waaaaaay back, there’s Great-to-the-nth-degree Grandma LUCA. As our Last Universal Common Ancestor, a probably single-celled organism floating around in Darwin’s “warm little pond.” LUCA is our connection to most other forms of life on the planet, from fungi and bacteria, to spiders and bananas.

Knowing about the theoretical existence of Grandma LUCA and Tiktaalik (along with all the human great-grandmothers I never met) puts on a new perspective on my place as individual human the world. I’m from a long line of survivors, whose fate is bound up with all the other creatures on Earth.
It’s hard to feel lonely with all those ancestral fish at your back.

In a gentle response to the previous post, John Horgan explores how the philosophy of mystical oneness can also be problematic, especially in the context of authoritarian cult leaders and bad acid trips. The self also needs some solid boundaries.)

Ancestors Remembering Grandma

Terrestrial Whales of the Great Lakes

This post is about a carpet sweeper. For information on “Are there Whales in the Great Lakes?” click here.

Humpback whale feeding. Note baleen strainers. Dr. Brandon Southall, NMFS/OPR, from NOAA Photo Library (2010) CC BY SA, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/8Uonkn


Science Friday had an interesting piece on the evolution of whale baleen for filter feeding. Baleen whales use these gigantic “mouth brushes” as sieves to filter out huge quantities of tiny animals (such as krill and plankton) from sea water. In a new study, Carlos Peredo descibes a fossil species of whale that had lost its teeth, but had not grown baleen. Like modern narwhals, this toothless & baleen-less whale probably used suction to eat fish and squid.

Brushes and suction are two strategies that we also use at the nature center for cleaning up crumbs and dirt after programs. Enter “the Blue Whale.”

“The Blue Whale” by PPJ (2018) CC BY SA 2.0

Note: It’s not an actual whale. It is a carpet sweeper (with a picture of a Blue Whale taped to it) that lives in the cleaning closet. A device of rather antique design, it uses a series of bristles and rotating blades to pull particles off of the carpet and into its maw. It does not require electricity, but relies on the muscle-power of the operator. Our site operations director presented the staff with a couple of these contraptions after several vacuuming mishaps resulted in expensive repairs to the vacuum cleaner.

Like a baleen whale filtering krill from water, the brushes and repeated sweeping motions of the operator, gather up tiny particles from the industrial carpet surface. The operator can open up an internal compartment storing the dirt and crumbs, and then can dump the contents into the trash.

Because the resemblance of the sweeper brushes to whale baleen, one of the nature center staff members started playfully referring the carpet sweeper as “The Blue Whale.” (Coincidentally, it is also a lovely shade of navy blue.)

This nickname caught on, and now a critical mass of staff members are how referring to “Blue whaling” the carpet as perfunctory part of daily clean up operation. Understandably, kids and others who hear this name are somewhat confused.

“What do you call it a “Blue Whale?” they ask.

Since we are nature educators, we then launch into a whole long speech about how whales use baleen to filter their food out of the water. Science! Nature!

There is also a fun and unintended side effect of our branding: Kids love using the carpet sweeper. Not only is it extremely satisfying to watch the Blue Whale sweep up goldfish cracker crumbs and dirt clods, it is much more fun to sweep them up yourself. Like Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence, kids find it irresistible and will wait their turn to use the Blue Whale to clean the carpet.

And now for our tangent:

Are there whales in the Great Lakes?

There are currently (as far as I know) no whales in the Great Lakes. You cannot go whale watching on any of the Great Lakes. There are no terrestrial (land-dwelling) whales in land surrounding the Great Lakes (with the exception of the aforementioned population of carpet sweepers.) For various reasons, saltwater-adapted marine mammals don’t seem to do very well for long periods in freshwater. Or on land.

The last time there may have been baleen whales living in the Great Lakes Region (albeit not exactly the Great Lakes) was about 13,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. The Champlain Sea was a temporary inlet of the Atlantic Ocean (saltwater). Fossils of whales have been found here, in what are now terrestrial (land) habitats.

Fatbergs of Chanukkah

Latkes cooling on paper towel (to blot excess oil) by PPJ (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0.

Disclaimer: This is not a post about delicious fried foods.  No, dear reader, this is a post that is kind of gross and you may not want to read while you’re eating.   Consider yourself forewarned.

I have a public service announcement for home cooks out there who might be frying up some latkes or sufganiyot in celebration of the Jewish Festival of Lights.  For the love of all that is holy (and for your local sewer workers), please do not pour quantities of used cooking oil down your kitchen sink drain.

Don’t pour the oil down the drain. Latkes frying on stove by PPJ (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0

Fats, oils and greases (collectively known the waste water world as “FOG”) contribute to the formation of a sewer-clogging menace known as “Fatbergs.”  Fatbergs can accumulate when FOG forms solid masses akin to icebergs that block the flow of wastewater through pipes. Famous fatbergs of recent memory have been documented in the London (UK) sewer system.  A piece of the Whitechapel fatberg is on display at the Museum of London.

But fatbergs happens in a lot of places. In Baltimore MD, a September 2017 fatberg clogged the sewer and caused a million gallons of raw sewage to spill into Jones Falls. Workers in Metro Detroit excavated a fatberg from a sewer in Macomb County in September 2018, at a cost to taxpayers of about $100,000.

Fatbergs are not just gigantic congealed blobs of FOG. The fat undergoes saponification in the presence of calcium ions in the sewer.  In effect, this is same process as mixing fat and an alkaline substance to make soap.  These huge chunks of “soap” clump together with undissolved wet-wipes (and other flushed sanitary products) to form a fatberg. Note: Generally, even if product claims it is “flushable,” it’s better to put it in the trash.

So what can the average home fry-cook do to prevent creating a sewer catastrophe?   If you’re making a lot of fried stuff and the oil is still in pretty good shape, you can strain the oil and reuse it.   Some communities have grease recycling to turn used cooking oil into biodiesel.  (Restaurants usually contract with a specialized grease recycling company to haul off their used frying grease.)  The Recycle Ann Arbor Drop Off Center accepts up to 5 gallons of  used vegetable oil. 

However, most of the time, I just wait for the oil to cool.  Then, I pour it into a lidded jar.  When the jar is full, I dispose of it in the trash.   I also try to wipe out extra-oily kitchen items with a paper towel prior to washing the dishes in the sink.

As for the fatbergs, I’m not sure what fate awaits them once they are scraped out of the sewers.  Except for the piece that ended up in the Museum of London, I would imagine that most end up in landfills.  A research team at University of British Columbia is investigating how to break down fatbergs in a biodigester to make to fuel .

Until then, give some love to your public works department: Don’t pour oil down the drain. Don’t flush “flushable wipes.”   Don’t feed the fatbergs!

Witch Hazel in Winter

A surprise this week in Michigan: Was the tree blooming out of sync? The bright yellow flowers seemed out of place against bare branches and a gray sky.

Witch Hazel blossoms in Ann Arbor, MI by PPJ (2018) CC BY SA 2.0.

Nope, the blooms were right on time. Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), native to the eastern half of North America, blooms in the late fall (October – December.) Though this plant sheds its leaves, it then displays these festive “crepe paper” petals.

This bloom time is puzzling – it’s cold outside.  What self-respecting insect is going to fly around in cold weather to pollinate this seasonally-delinquent blossom? Generally, insects body temperatures (and ability to fly) are dependent on the ambient temperatures.

However, according to the Venerable Trees blog, ecologist Bernd Heinrich observed that owlet moths (Noctuidae) are flying around on cool winter nights and pollinating witch hazel flowers. The moths warm up by shivering their thoracic muscles, and being furry probably also helps retain body heat.

In Michigan, Martin J. Andree observed one of these Noctuid moths, the Bicolored Sallow (Sunira bicolorago) feeding on Witch hazel blossoms one evening in October 2012 while he was raking leaves.

Check out the fur on the Bicolored Sallow moth. Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (2013) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Once pollinated, the fruits slowly form over the winter and the next season. When fruits are ripe, then can open explosively, shedding seeds far from the tree.

Opened witch hazel fruit husks. West Bloomfield Woods Nature preserve by PPJ (2016) CC By SA 2.0 via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/HDYEgu

Is this plant called “Witch Hazel” for it’s season-defying flowering abilities? One source for its name might be that the cone – gall aphid forms structures under the leaves that appear to be tiny witches hats.

Witch Hazel Cone-Galls by John Cooper (2011) CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons

Another source of the name is the Middle English “wiche”, meaning bendy or pliable. The bendy branches of American Witch-Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) reminded European settles of a plant known in Europe as Witch Hazel/Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra).



Check out Mary Jane Borge’s beautiful Witch hazel photos on her blog, the The Natural Web.

For Lepidoptera who feel a little out of sync, check out Jerome Robbins classic ballet piece, “The Concert – Mistake Waltz”

New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center via https://gph.is/2ryAlDP

Folk Magic for Non-Profit Donors

The Enchanted Garden by Julie Geiger (2013) CC BY SA 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/ifdfii

This week, in the wake of #Giving Tuesday, my inbox and social media feeds have been inundated by year-end requests for assistance.

As a donor, I can intellectually appreciate that my donation will go to (for example) paying staff members, purchasing art supplies or feeding hungry animals. But I don’t donate my limited charitable dollars out of a sense of rational duty. I do it for emotional reasons. And not even entirely noble ones.

In contrast to the year-end ask, my emotional giving is triggered in response to stochastic events. It is easy to feel small and powerless when scary, crazy things happen in the world, or when powerful people take infuriating actions that could hurt others.

These are where folk-magic encounters the modern non-profit, the fundraising equivalent of Grandma’s practice of tying a red ribbon around the rear-view mirror to shield me and my car from malign influences. It’s for when thoughts and prayers are not enough. To manifest your heartfelt intention (kavannah) in the world (“Please fix this problem, because it makes me angry/scared/sad,”) you need an offering, some sacrifice on the part of the petitioner to show seriousness.

It could be an action like writing a letter, posting a petition on social media or calling a congress critter. But most often for me, it’s a targeted donation amount in a multiple of $18. (For more on this practice: check out  History of Giving Money Gifts in Multiples of 18 from Jewish Boston). As long as we’re doing magic here, we’re going to stick with some powerful numbers.

For example: Last year, then-EPA Chief Scott Pruitt was attempting to roll back pollution regulations (and purchasing very important pants) In response, I sent an $18 to an environmental litigation organization with the heartfelt intention, “Please use this money to sue the pants off of Scott Pruitt.”

Not long after, Mega Donor Mike Bloomberg endowed a $6 million center at NYC Law to help state attorneys general to sue the federal government. It was an emotionally-satisfying (albeit, irrational) conclusion to think that my little bit of intention sent into the Universe had finally connected with some real heft.

Some donations invoking magic are of the wildfire, hurricane and earthquake relief variety. After the 2011 Japan Earthquake, the Japan Society in New York City started to receive many small donations to go towards relief, but was puzzled by those that arrived $18 increments. (Power of magic numbers). While the pragmatic end of such generosity is that people get fed, and housed and cared for, the immediate relief goes to the moved/shaken/discomforted donor who regains a measure of “control” in the face of chaos and suffering.

These magical donations can be in the wake of smaller tragedies, such as the death of a community member or illness of a loved one. An event-triggered donation can also be a fervent wish of a blessing and abundance (a contribution to a crowd-sourced project or a beloved alumni organization.) Not only does the recipient organization or individual acquire the practical value of money, the gift contains the moral (and magical) support of the heartfelt intention.

I’m not quite sure if this impulse towards magical thinking can be corralled for the purpose of the year-end sustaining gift by development departments. For that, we might have to rely on behavioral economics to bring potential donors to the table.

The Lettuce, the Phage and the Microbe


Rod-shaped E. coli bacteria nestle inside a minute pore in the leaf called a stoma. E. coli bacteria on lettuce by AgriLife Today (2010) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, on Flickr

In the days before the Thanksgiving, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta released a stark warning: Don’t eat the Romaine Lettuce. The agency was investigating a a multi-state outbreak of a strain of bacteria called
Escherichia coli
, which in addition to causing diarrhea and other unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms, can also cause acute kidney failure and death.

The suspected carrier of this virulent microbe: Romaine Lettuce.

The Suspect! Romaine Lettuce by Rainer Zenz (2006) CC-BY-SA-3.0 from Wikimedia Commons

The internet has been awash in memes highlighting the lethality of poor Romaine lettuce, which is normally lauded for its tastiness in salads and nutrition content. But don’t just blame it on Romaine!

This is actually a interesting ecological saga of microbial romance, ruminant guts, and watershed management intersecting with our salad plates.

Let’s start with E. coli.

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of Escherichia coli, by NIAID (2013) CC By-2.0 on Flickr

E. coli is a type of bacteria that normally lives in the intestines of humans and animals. Most E. coli strains are harmless, and actually provide a protective role in the intestine by preventing disease-causing bacteria from moving in. They also help make Vitamin K. Scientists love using E. coli an a model bacteria in the lab. It is easy to feed and grow!

On an environmental scale, E. coli can get transferred from its home in the intestines to the larger world via … poop.

So how do the bacteria make it from poop into another intestinal home? Water! Humans came up with this ingenious idea of making our poop go away by sending it into flowing water.

Bye! Wolfmann (2018) CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

We have mitigated the E. coli transfer somewhat by treating our sewage (which I realize is just a fancy word for poop-water) before dumping it out into rivers and lakes. However, leaky septic systems and intense storm overflow events may cause sewage to bypass the treatment process and end up in the water anyway. Animal poop lying around on the ground (or in big lagoons on a cattle feedlot) may get washed into waterways by rain.

Belleville Lake beach closed due to high bacteria levels (E. coli) in the water. Local sources of E. coli bacteria include leaky septic systems and storm runoff containing animal poop. by PPJ (2018) CC BY SA 2.0.

Some of this E. coli-laden water makes it to a farm irrigation system, where it waters the the lettuce. And leaves behind a nice film of E. coli bacteria in search of a new intestine to live in.

Most E. coli versions aren’t dangerous. This water-borne bacteria becomes a problem when the kinds of E. coli venturing forth into the water include less-benign, disease-causing versions. These pathogenic strains secrete toxins that can damage tissue cells in the human body. Scientist can track these variants by their serotype designations (i.e. O157:H7) that refer to the arrangement of sugar molecules in the E. coli bacterium cell wall.

So where do the toxins come from? For example, E. coli O157:H7 produces a Shiga toxin that damages intestinal cells to cause bloody diarrhea, and potentially even kidney failure by damaging the tiny kidney capillaries with the debris of broken cells. Shiga toxin was first identified in the bacterium Shigella dysenteriae, a pathogen that causes dysentery (severe diarrhea.) Producing bacterial toxins may confer evolutionary advantages over non-toxin mediated infection by increasing the virulence of the bacteria, as well as increasing transmissibility of bacterial particles via diarrhea output.

“You have died of dysentery.” Screenshot from classic Apple II educational computer game, Oregon Trail.

But how did the genes for making Shiga toxin make it from the genome of Shigella into its cousin E. coli?  Through bacteria sharing genes via bacteriophage, or its less sexy name, Transduction.

Bacteriophages (virues that infect bacteria) are often floating around places like intestines where lots of different kinds of bacteria are hanging out.

Just going through a phage.  Bacteriophage exterior by Adenosine  (2009) CC BY-SA 3.0  from Wikimedia Commons

In this case, a phage may have transferred a snippet of genetic material containing the toxin-coding region from a Shigella spp. bacterium into an E. coli bacterium, granting a previously benign microbe an infectious advantage. (Tangent: Bacteria can also use this process to transfer genes for antibiotic resistance.

Okay, so now that we have a Shiga-toxin producing strain of E. coli, how did it end up on the Romaine lettuce? Are sick humans just pooping indiscriminately all over our lettuce fields (or within the watersheds that flow into irrigation systems?)

Possibly,  however a more likely culprit has a ruminant digestive system and hooves:

Serious, serious cattle by J.C. Burns (2017) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/UFMCNG

Turns out that cattle (and other ruminants such as deer, goats and sheep) are asymptomatic carriers of the Shiga-toxin producing strains of E. coli. The bacteria do not make the cattle sick, possibly because they lack specific cell receptors the bacteria use to attack blood vessels.  The cattle are a living reservoirs for these E. coli strains, as well as contributing to literal reservoirs for the bacteria in the form of waste retaining ponds full of cattle poop. That poop-carrying water is just a rainstorm and a watershed away from making its way to the lettuce fields.  Voila, you’ve got an epidemic of foodborne illness!

While it’s tempting to reduce the media narrative to “Romaine Lettuce is now deadly,” I think it’s much more interesting to look at the interconnections between all of the players in this story (The Cattle, the Poop, the watersheds, the E. Coli and the bacteriophage). The science is much weirder than you might imagine.

A Recipe for Crickets and Salad

Approximation of chopped salad. Cilantro in the Mix by Jamie (2011) CC By 2.0, onFlickr https://flic.kr/p/9Av8Ff

In addition to my regular work at the nature center, I have also started volunteering to take care of animals that live in our Critter House. Thanksgiving morning, while many other American humans were roasting turkeys or making pies, I found myself prepping food for a variety of animals.

First, you have to feed the food. Thinly-sliced carrots and high-calcium feed for our cricket colony in their tank of paper tubes and egg cartons. Chunks of carrot, parsnip and sweet potato for the mealworms and superworms (darkling beetle larvae) in their tubs of wheat bran.

We can’t eat this shiny thing! Mealworms_1 by Josh More (2016) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 , on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/RcmUmM

Then, you have to chop the salad for the reptiles: Green, veggies and fruits from the fridge. Weigh each amount on the food scale, check against the recipe, then pulse in the food processor. Plate the salads on the exo terra dishes (or flat rocks so the turtles can sharpen their beaks). Sprinkle with vitamin powder a la parmesan cheese.

Some skink and wood turtle salads get garnished with the gut-loaded meal worms or superworms (Be sure to remove the superworms heads, those little dudes are feisty!)

Aquatic turtles get floating turtle kibbles. Sprinkle these into the appropriate tanks.

Next, kidnap the crickets. (This usually involves shaking out one of the paper towel tubes where they have taken refuse. Shake into deep plastic cup. Use tongs to feed the specified numbers of crickets to salamanders, toads, frogs and turtles. Dust the remaining crickets with vitamin powder. (This may leave the crickets somewhat disoriented.) Feed dusted crickets to bearded dragons.

Bearded Dragon at Indianpolis Zoo by Cburnett (2007) CC-BY-SA-3.0 , from Wikimedia Commons

Make sure rodents have rodent kibbles. Make sure roaches have sliced sweet potatoes and carrots. Check water levels and humidity levels. There is much misting with treat (dechlorinated) water. (Why are you skittering away? You live in a rainforest, it’s supposed to be wet. )

Bon Appetit!