What’s so interesting about microbiology? Microorganisms were here before man walked the Earth, and they’ll be here after we’re gone. Actually, you would find it difficult to survive without them. Some bacteria, called commensals, live in and on our bodies to our benefit, protecting  us from invading pathogens (disease causing germs), and they produce vitamins.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the bad bugs. They’re responsible for more deaths than cancer, heart attacks, and war. They can disfigure, eat flesh, paralyze, or just make you feel so bad you wish you were dead.

There are four major types of microorganisms: bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. They can cause damage directly, or they can release toxins that do the dirty work for them.

CDC image


CDC image

 


 

CDC image


CDC image


So, how can your villains use microorganisms to kill? First they’ll need a fundamental knowledge of microbiology, such as information that’s taught in a basic college course. Next, the bad guy will need a source of bacteria. Microbiology labs all over the world contain bugs of all types.

Labs of this type are secure so a little B & E would be in order. Or, maybe your villain has a connection with a person who has control of the bug of interest. If so, the evil-doer could make what’s known in the trade as a V.I.P. trip. He’d fly to the friend’s lab, place the bug in a plastic vial, hide the vial in his pocket (V.I.P.), and get back on the plane for the trip home.

Once the potential killer has the bug, he has to keep it alive and reproducing. Bacteria are grown on agar plates (food for bugs) in an incubator. In general, bacteria double in number every 20 minutes. So, if you start with just a few bugs, let’s say 10, and allow them to grow overnight…well, you do the math. Once the bad guy has enough of the bug, then it’s time to deliver it to the intended victim.

Picking up bacteria from agar plate. The brownish-red material is the agar. The grayish coloring at the top of the agar is E.coli bacteria.

Now for a true story. It wasn’t murder, just an unfortunate accident that involved a woman, some green beans, and a home canning jar. Canning jars have lids designed to exhibit a slight indentation in their centers when food is fresh. If the indentation inverts (pops up), the vegetables may be contaminated, and should be discarded.

A woman was preparing dinner for her family and decided to serve some of her home-canned green beans that evening. She picked up a jar of beans, but thought the pop-up didn’t look quite right. So, to satisfy her curiosity, she opened the jar, touched her finger to the bean juice, and tasted it. It tasted fine to her, so she cooked the beans and served the steaming hot dish to her family. The next day the woman died, but her family survived. The beans contained botulism toxin produced by the bacteria, Clostridium botulinum. C. botulinum lives naturally in the soil.

Botulism toxin is one of the most powerful neurotoxins known to man. About 10 ounces could kill everyone on Earth. It works by paralyzing its victim. Why didn’t the other members of the family die? The toxin is inactivated by heat.


Dr. Denene Lofland received her PhD degree in pathology from the Medical College of Virginia, and she’s a trained clinical microbiologist. She has served as the Director of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at Wright State University, and has worked in biotech/drug research and development for many years.

As a biotech director she and her team developed and received FDA approvals of the drugs gemifloxacin (Factive), an antibiotic for the treatment of bacterial pneumonia, and Cayston, an inhaled antibiotic for cystic fibrosis. Both medications have been prescribed by physicians worldwide.

As Manager of Operations for a company that specialized in high-level anti-bioterrorism research and development, Denene supervised several projects,  including government-sponsored research for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), which required her to maintain a secret security clearance.

Denene has published numerous articles in scientific and other peer-reviewed journals. She contributed to the thirteenth edition of Bailey and Scott’s Diagnostic Microbiology, and she’s a contributing author of the Textbook of Diagnostic Microbiology (Elsevier 2022).

She was recently named a Fellow of the Association of Clinical Scientists, an elite association of top scientists from around the world that includes pathologists, clinical chemists, molecular and cell biologists, microbiologists, immunologists, hematologists, cytogeneticists, toxicologists, pharmacokineticists, clinicians, cancer researchers and other doctoral scientists who are experts in laboratory methods for the elucidation, diagnosis, and treatment of human diseases.

Denene currently serves as Microbiology and Immunology Thread Director at Drexel University College of Medicine.

I wrote this article back in 2018. It’s a good time to revisit because, well, you know …

Those of you with medical elements embedded into your twisted tales will perhaps be interested in the following information. For all others, well, break out the gloves, masks and hand sanitizers, and, as an added precaution, you may want to stock your pantries because things could get ugly.

Did you know:

  • At least five microbes are resistant to nearly all available antibiotics.
  • 1 in 6 Americans—48 million people—get sick from contaminated food each year.
  • The Centers for Disease Control’s AMD program (Advanced Molecular Detection) uses next generation sequencing and bioinformatics, and experts in epidemiology, lab sciences, and bioinformatics to provide new insight into microbes. AMD provides sequencing machines that can read the DNA or RNA code of a microbe as well as supercomputers with the capability, via advanced software, to intelligently detect patterns.
  • CDC’s Advanced Molecular Detection (AMD) program is designed to protect Americans from microbial threats. AMD utilizes microbiology and bioinformatics to assist scientists and health professionals in their quest to find and stop infectious disease outbreaks.
  • During the period of time between 2007-2012, construction occupations, both supervisory and line-level workers, accounted for the highest number heroin and prescription opioid–related overdose deaths. The occupation groups with the highest number of drug-related deaths caused by the use of methadone, natural and semisynthetic opioids, and synthetic opioids other than methadone, were:

  1. construction,
  2. extraction (e.g., mining, oil and gas extraction)
  3. health care practitioners.
  • The three most common methods of committing murder in the U.S., per year, are:

Clearly, firearms, by far, lead the other means of killing.

Zoonotic Diseases

  • Yes, studies indicate that people who have strong bonds with their pets often enjoy increased fitness and lower stress levels. And, the level of happiness achieved by pet owners is high. However, since pets can carry germs known as zoonotic diseases (diseases caused by harmful viruses, bacterial, parasites, and fungi), pet owners should make certain their beloved animals are healthy.
  • Zoonotic diseases cause anything from mild to serious illness and even death.
  • According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) “Zoonotic diseases are very common, both in the United States and around the world. Scientists estimate that more than 6 out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people are spread from animals, and 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people are spread from animals. Every year, tens of thousands of Americans will get sick from harmful germs spread between animals and people. Because of this, CDC works 24/7 to protect people from zoonotic diseases.”
  • To help fend off zoonotic disease, avoid contact with the saliva, blood, urine, mucous, feces, or other body fluids of an infected animal.

  • Have your pet examined by a veterinarian, regularly.
  • Use caution and wear protective clothing (gloves, face masks, etc.), when in contact with areas where animals are or were at some point. The same is true when handling objects or touching surfaces that have been contaminated with germs—aquarium water, hamster habitats and play areas, dog and cat bedding and litter boxes, chicken coops, plants, and even soil, leftover pet food, and water dishes.

Please, always wash your hands often and thoroughly, even after petting or otherwise contacting animals, including your own pets. You never know what could be hiding in that soft fur and on those adorable faces.

*Source ~ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Denene was in Chicago this week, by invitation, to participate in a meeting of the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners. The team was here to review questions submitted for the national medical boards. In other words, she and fellow experts (Denene is the microbiology expert of the team) were here to vet questions for the board exams. These exams are the tests medical students must pass to become physicians.

Denene’s portion of the questions make up a big part of the very first board exam, along with others in tests along the course of study. Prior to taking the tests, student doctors participate in classroom and lab for the first 2 yrs of medical school. Once they’ve successfully completed the exam they’re set to begin their first rotations at local hospitals and clinics.

Next are written exams followed by the practical portion (bedside consultation with actors who’re trained as professional patients). Very realistic. This practical portion takes place in a realistic doctor’s office exam room, which just happens to be a room fitted with equipment to record all audio and video. This all takes place with examiners looking on from behind a two-way mirror like those seen in police interrogation rooms.

Following the completion of all exams and practical sessions, each student doctor receives their medical degree. However, they must first select a residency in the field of medicine they want to practice—board scores often determine which path the new doctors must follow. Then they enter the residency, take more tests, and then they become full-fledged physicians. The field of medicine determines the length of residency. Some may be as quick as two years and some up to five years, or so.

Yep, I married a genius who also successfully developed drugs for cystic fibrosis and bacterial pneumonia (both are on the market), managed a biotech company that worked on top secret government bioterrorism projects, was senior director of a biotech company, traveled the world managing successful clinical trials and then she and her team presented her findings to the FDA for successful approval, and so much more.

Me, I’ve been a bit under the weather the entire stay. Almost cancelled the trip because I didn’t think I could make. But I did, and spent my time hanging out at the hotel, writing, observing, reading, and, as always, working on the Writers’ Police Academy. And let me tell you, we are working on some spectacular … oops, almost spilled the beans. 🙂

But I was able to pull it together long enough for Denene and me to join my buddy Doug Cummings for dinner one night.

Doug was nice enough to brave commute traffic to drop by and pick us up from the hotel. Doug’s a wonderful author who spent some time working as a deputy sheriff, but left to serve twenty-five years as a television and radio reporter covering crime, much of that time in Chicago and nearby suburbs.

Please do stop by Doug’s website to learn more about him and his writing. You’ll be glad you did.

Anyway, at this moment, I’m in Chicago at the airport with my wife, the genius. And we’re on the way home!