Cheerleader helps discover novel bacterium

A cheerleader volunteering for a citizen-science project helped discover a novel bacterium from a seat at a football stadium at Coronado High School in San Diego.

Members of a citizen-science group called Science Cheerleader helped gather microbe samples by swabbing the school’s stadium seats and shared the samples with a project known as MERCCURI. Scientist David Coil and his team published a paper in PeerJ on Nov. 12 that names the new yellow-orange critter Porphyrobacter Mercurialis.

“Give me a P, Give me an O, Give me…. a yellow-orange member of the Erythrobacteracae family.” For the sake of cheering, might need to shorten the bacteria’s name to Porphy. Coil told us that many new bacteria are named every month, and that Porphy is not highly unusual. The bacterium is related to marine creatures and may have wafted from the nearby ocean to the stadium.

Just to add to the fun, the novel bacteria spent some time growing on the International Space Station, as part of the project. Porphy was not a standout – not faster or slower than the others. Just middle-of-the-road.

Moly_stain13porphyero-David-CoilTransmission electron microscopy of exponential phase culture of new bacterium in lysogeny broth. Photo used with Creative Commons license from PeerJ.

Taylor Hooks is the ex-professional cheerleader, and volunteer with Science Cheerleader, who sampled seats at the stadium. “I was the only person collecting samples at the event, so it must have been a sample I collected. It makes me very happy to have contributed in some way to a discovery of this nature.  It’s really amazing,” she told us in an email interview.

Microbiologist Coil is one of the lead scientists on the project and explained that this national citizen-science project gathered candidate microbes to fly in microgravity on the ISS.  The team selected 48 “candidates” for a growth competition. More information on MERCCURI here.

Hooks has been a volunteer for SciCheer for five years. She lives in Southern California and works in the medical imaging field, but is currently studying for her masters’ in business administration.

Coil works at the University of California, Davis, in the Eisen Lab. Citizen science is a particular passion of his and of lab leader Jonathan Eisen. The lab sent members to a national conference on Citizen Science in San Jose in February.

Coil admits cheering himself when he knew the paper was being published. He chose the name “mercurialis” for two reasons. The bacteria was not easy to grow and mercurial means temperamental. But he also liked using a part of MERCCURI for the bacteria’s name to honor the program.

Another cheerleader happy about the microbe is the woman who carries the mantle of “Science Cheerleader” founder – Darlene Cavalier. She is also the founder of SciStarter, the organization that recruited thousands of people to participate in the microbe collection effort. Darlene wrote at her site, “Our goal is to spur even more people to get involved. SciStarter created partnerships with the Science Cheerleaders (an organization of 300-plus current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders with science careers) and Pop Warner Little Scholars, a nonprofit  youth football and cheer group serving more than 400,000 athletes. Both groups helped promote Project MERCCURI. Learn more at

Editor’s note: Sally James appeared on a panel about citizen-science microbiology at the 2015 Citizen Science Association conference in San Jose. She received partial travel reimbursement from the Eisen Lab.

Citizen science – Many hands make research work

Read the full story in August issue of Alaska Beyond magazine.

Seattle area resident Laura James spends many hours each year piloting an underwater exploration robot beneath Puget Sound waves to count sea stars, many of which are experiencing “sea-star wasting syndrome.” The syndrome, which has caused extensive die-offs from Alaska to Mexico, may start with a deflated appearance, unnatural twisting and lesions and rapidly progress to loss of arms, softening of tissue and death.

Unprecedented conversation on cancer film

People are talking about the cancer film, “Emperor of Maladies,” produced by Ken Burns for the Public Broadcasting System, PBS. The three part series began Monday and ends tonight. What won’t end right away, however, is the talking about the film – especially the social media “talking” that marketing consultant Audun Utengen called “unprecedented.”

Will the talking itself make any changes in the public understanding of the science depicted? Will it bring a flood of phone calls to the Cancer Information Service, for example? Will people send donations for research? Tonight’s episode will highlight some very promising, but very expensive new therapies tailored to each patient’s immune system. The clash between what is possible and what is affordable will be clear.

Some doctors hope that public literacy improves. One of them is breast surgeon Deanna Attai, who is a professor at UCLA and has a practice in Burbank, Calif. She posted tweets during the nightly “live” event organized by the National Cancer Institute, NCI. Her comments were part of roughly 17,000 posts by the end of that first night on the social media platform Twitter.

Utengen and his company, Symplur, help keep track of the metrics on that “second screen” where the public talk about the movie.  You can see a running set of metrics and top 10 “influencers” at this link. Attai, who is also a reviewer for the nonprofit HealthNewsReview, wrote in an email that she wanted the film to get across “how far we’ve come.” She also believes that many people still see cancer as uniformly fatal, when that is no longer the reality.

In a strange parallel to the sort of sports banter that goes on during a March madness basketball game, people from Minnesota to Maine posted about the children with leukemia portrayed during the first episode, “Magic Bullets.” They wrote “poor Robert” during a historic section about the first child to receive chemotherapy in the 1940s, or poor Luca about a modern-era patient. They cheered and booed and shared when something on screen reminded them of a dead relative’s similar case. Some posted that they were turning away because the depictions of hospital beds and failures were too traumatizing.

#cancerfilm was on last night. Could not watch. Living the process and knowing the outcome is real enough.

— ILCmom (@ILCmom) March 31, 2015


Meanwhile, institutions such as Columbia Medicine, Mayo Clinic, and others, posted links related to their own research. The author of the book that inspired the film is Siddhartha Mukherjee who works at Columbia. They tweeted links to their own precision medicine efforts.

But in the film’s depiction of historic early cancer treatment failures, perhaps one of the most poignant reminders that could linger is we always believe in magic bullets, but as Forbes reporter Matthew Herper wrote about the documentary: “they have never been magic enough.” Herper wrote that he hopes the film imbues people with more context and skepticism. Even the newest bullets, such as immunotherapies filling news reports, may very well require years of refinement to be magic enough for a majority of patients. A noted leader in oncology, posting on twitter, expressed much the same sentiment on Monday evening.

  Alok Khorana is the director of the GI Malignancies program at the Cleveland Clinic, and the chair-elect of the giant American Society of Clinical Oncology or ASCO.  In his tweet, if you don’t know the abbreviations, “rad/surg” means radiation/surgery. To its credit, the film depicts many dashed hopes and failures. The first night also showed the backroom dealing and politics of raising money and changing public perceptions.

Attai echoed some of the same combination of measured optimism and a hope that people come away with a nuanced view of cancer’s challenge. “People don’t realize just how far we have to go – the more we learn, the more we realize how much we still don’t know. We’ve gotten to the point to be able to identify many of the complex molecular pathways, only to be surprised that when we find a drug that can block a pathway or mutation, cancer cells figure out how to bypass that block,” she wrote. There will be thousands of messages to parse and analyze in the weeks and months following the film’s airing. Dozens of individual television stations, such as Seattle’s KCTS-9, reported stories for their own website to dovetail with themes from the documentary. They held a preview event attended by an estimated 400 people at the city’s Town Hall. PBS invited viewers to post stories at a “story wall” online. Let’s give the last word to a patient, who is herself an advocate on the topic of lung cancer. Janet Freeman-Daily is currently NED (no evidence of disease) and is participating in a clinical trial based on the particular genetic signature of her lung cancer. She posted this Monday evening.

Note – Tomorrow (April 2) from 1-2 p.m. ET there is a live chat on twitter about immunotherapy led by the NCI

NOTE – Most of this post also appeared as a guest blog at Health News Review. The illustration at top is reprinted with permission from Symplur.