Mycobacterium? I hardly knew him!
November 28, 2018 9:24 PM   Subscribe

As water passes through pipes in general and showerheads in particular, a thick biofilm builds up. Biofilm is a fancy word that scientists use to avoid saying “gunk.” It is made by individuals of one or more species of bacteria working together to protect themselves from hostile conditions—including the flow of water, which constantly threatens to wash them away—via their own excretions. In essence, the bacteria poop a little indestructible condominium in your pipes, built of hard-to-break-down complex carbohydrates. But when the pressure is high enough, these species are let loose into the fine aerosol spray of water droplets pelting our hair and bodies and splashing up and into our noses and mouths. And in some regions, but not others, they increasingly seem to be making people sick.
posted by Johnny Wallflower (21 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
On that note, today it was reported that four UW Hospital patients developed Legionnaires' disease, likely from contaminated water.
posted by Jpfed at 10:34 PM on November 28, 2018 [1 favorite]


Well, have you heard that the kind of low flow toilets that use an accumulator to create a very powerful flush aerosolize water contaminated with fecal matter? Apparently it hasn't been a health problem. I remember reading about new, (25 years ago,) fiberglass tubs and showers that had nano silver particles to retard bacterial growth. The pitch was not only easier to clean but from what they said you were taking your life in your hands every time you took a shower. I don't know, I think we need a better relationship with bacteria than all the antibiotic dish soap and E-coli deaths seem to indicate we have.
posted by Pembquist at 12:25 AM on November 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


Good Lord, is anything NOT making us sick? This article was a roller coaster: treat water, eliminate pathogens, but then you get more mycobacteria that can make you sick, but also, maybe they can boost seratonin and ease stress? Jesus.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:23 AM on November 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


Another heart-warming post from MetaFilter scamp Johnny Wallflower.

Next, bacteria in the pipes will rescue a toddler! And knit a sweater! Out of their poo!
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:45 AM on November 29, 2018 [8 favorites]


Biofilm is a fancy word that scientists use to avoid saying “gunk.”

This is why for some years now I have used the phrase "biofilm plaques" as a fancy way to say "boogers".
posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:52 AM on November 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


poop a little indestructible condominium in your pipes

It’s dystopia’s remake of that famous They Might Be Giants song!
posted by chavenet at 3:45 AM on November 29, 2018 [24 favorites]


Biofilm is a fancy word that scientists use to avoid saying “gunk.”

Stuff grows like mad in commercial ice machines with their constantly running water. Huge ropey gelatinous masses. We affectionately referred to it as "whale snot"...
posted by jim in austin at 6:13 AM on November 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


It was at least nice that the article said they're still checking to see whether these bacteria are harmful or helpful. Since the world is stuffed to bursting with bacteria, you're never going to eliminate them. (I will omit the obvious e. coli. gags).

Apparently the bacteria come through the pipes from the water plant. I thought there was going to turn out to be some pathway from people back into the shower heads. That seems like how you would get something dangerous, since natural selection for living in humans gets involved. And, since bacteria seem to be able to tool up to do pretty much anything, metabolically speaking, that is not a good situation.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:35 AM on November 29, 2018


In essence, the bacteria poop a little indestructible condominium in your pipes...

With sincere and profound apologies to They Might Be Giants:

Mycobacterium in the pipe and the showerhead
Who watches over you
Poop a little indestructible condominium in your pipes

Not to put too fine a point on it
They'll leave a little gunk on your bonnet
Poop a little indestructible condominium in your pipes
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:41 AM on November 29, 2018 [14 favorites]


Just rolls off the tongue, that, and surely builds an indestructible condominium in your brain.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:05 AM on November 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


Tangentially, from the beginning of TFA ... "In 1654, Rembrandt painted a woman, in Amsterdam, bathing in a stream."

I believe this is A Woman bathing in a Stream for which there is easily found discussion of who the woman may represent, the expression of the privacy of the moment, even the pigments used, but nothing about her metaphorical transition (but I'm just a googler, not an art historian).

Oh, and Bring on the Mycobacterium vaccae!
posted by achrise at 7:30 AM on November 29, 2018


Nice to see an acknowledgement by name of the technician, instead of just "my lab":
a large team of collaborators (including Matt Gebert, a technician in Noah’s laboratory who ultimately did most of the work)
posted by clawsoon at 7:40 AM on November 29, 2018 [10 favorites]


Stuff grows like mad in commercial ice machines with their constantly running water. Huge ropey gelatinous masses. We affectionately referred to it as "whale snot"...

I could have lived quite happily without knowing that.
posted by Pembquist at 9:19 AM on November 29, 2018 [6 favorites]


I read this article a few days ago, and I've been wondering ever since what I'm supposed to do about it. I could clean my shower head more often (or ever), but I think the problem probably extends down the hose and into the faucet, at the very least. Should I just be throwing away shower heads and their hoses every two months? That doesn't seem right.

Or I suppose I could just make a concerted effort to forget that I read this article and go back to never looking at my shower head, ever.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 9:21 AM on November 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


Now I want to sample every surface in my home and find what's growing. Since my hobbies include baking sourdough and making cheese I'm guessing a pretty wide variety of lactobacillus and s.thermophilus.

I also haven't had a major sinus infection (43 and counting) since I started making yogurt for breakfast a few years back. I can't prove the relation, but I'm guessing my home's biosphere just out-competes any invaders that blow in on the wind.
posted by endotoxin at 9:24 AM on November 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


Seconding the urge to sample and culture everything, especially after reading about the hemimastigotes last week. If I discover a new kingdom of life, can I be it's benevolent dictator? If it's a new domain, can I be it's master?
posted by Emmy Noether at 10:44 AM on November 29, 2018


MetaFilter: just make a concerted effort to forget that I read this
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:47 AM on November 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


Johnny Wallflower FPP: I could have lived quite happily without knowing that.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:15 AM on November 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


Microbiology is so cool! I mean I'm biased--I am a microbiologist. There is so much we don't know about microbes and it's challenging (impossible?) to catch up, since microbes are evolving faster than we can learn about them. Also, microbiology is a super interdisciplinary field. I suppose all STEM fields are, but microbiology requires that you have a strong background in classical microbiology as well as expertise in bioinformatics and ecology. Plus, you need to have a strong understanding of whatever system you are studying. In this case you need to consider where the water in the pipe comes from and what the resident microbial community in that water looks like. And how it changes over time, in response to variables like temperature and/or season. And how is that water purified? What chemicals are in the water? What about the showerhead--does the shape impact the microbial community? What about the material the showerhead is manufactured out of? And if we zoom out further--what about the humans USING the showerhead? Are they immunocompromised? Do they interact with one another? Why are they using that particular showerhead?

If you find this stuff interesting, I'd highly encourage you to read 11+ things everyone needs to know about microbes, a blog post written by Dr. Jonathan Eisen at UC Davis. I'd like to especially point out 5b--there are still entire DOMAINS of microbes that have not been classified. And yes, it can be scary because some bacteria can make "bad" things happen. But most of all, isn't it cool? Bacteriophages can save us, microbes can influence our body and brain chemistry, and of course there is a ton of emerging research about the microbial community impacts the flavors and taste of foods!
posted by lucy.jakobs at 12:56 PM on November 29, 2018 [9 favorites]


The thing with "sampling" is that there are loads of "viable, non-cultivable" microbes. The trend now has been to barcode and do high-throughput/ shotgun sequencing and bulk DNA isolates and do some arithmetic afterwards to not only identify all/ most of the organisms present but also relative numbers.

Fungi and bacteria also grow at different rates/ conditions. Typically LB (lysogeny broth, also known incorrectly as Lauria Bertani) agar is used to culture bacteria (typically at 25-35'C for 3 days) and PDA (potato dextrose agar) is used to culture fungi (typically at 15-25'C for 4-6 days). There are alternatives such as tryptic soy and SDA+ media, but for enumeration, LB and PD is "good enough."

Mycobacteria are typically cultured on Middlebrook, Lowenstein-Jensen, or American Trudeau Society and depending on the species, at potentially very different conditions and times.

You can do settle plates (expose the semi-solid media for a pre-determined amount of time to see what falls on it and grows) or you can do spread (either soak a cotton swab in sterile water or peptone water, sample the surface, shake the sampling head in a known quantity of sterile water or peptone water, plate and spread a known amount - and dilutions of - of that) or streak (streak the sampling head directly on the semi-solid media).

Then you isolate single colonies, grow them up as pure cultures, then do 16s (bacterial) or 18s (fungal) rRNA sequencing to identify the species.

Or do it like in the bad old days and do physical microbiology to identify with acid fast tests, gross morphology, colony morphology differences when cultured on different substrates, etc.

So, yeah, next-generation sequencing is the preferred method; it's also objectively much better.
posted by porpoise at 4:41 PM on November 29, 2018 [3 favorites]


Clearly the solution, as in most problems, is to just take a nice hot bath.
posted by Scram at 3:19 PM on November 30, 2018


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