Spike the Eggnog Now, No Salmonella Later

Now that Thanksgiving has ended and we are slowly making our way through the turkey leftovers, it is officially Christmas season! It is the time for shopping, wrapping presents, and decorating the tree. For some, no Christmas season is complete without a cup of eggnog. Eggnog is a creamy drink that is made of milk and/or cream, sugar, whipped eggs and spirits such as brandy, rum or bourbon. However, since the recipe involves raw eggs there is a chance of another unwanted ingredient appearing in the holiday beverage – Salmonella.

Salmonella is a genus of bacteria that can make people very sick. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an infection from Salmonella can cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps that can persist for 12 to 72 hours. The sickness usually lasts 4 to 7 days and most people can recover from Salmonella without treatment. However, in some infections the diarrhea may be so severe that hospitalization is a necessary for recovery. Furthermore, in these severe infections of Salmonella it can spread from the intestines to the bloodstream leading to other parts of the body which can cause death unless the person is quickly treated with antibiotics.

Salmonella can contaminate undercooked meat, poultry, and even eggs which brings us back to eggnog. Eggnog is made using raw eggs, but many people also add some alcohol to their egg milk punch to give it an extra kick. So does adding the alcohol actually kill any harmful bacteria in your homemade eggnog? NPR’s Science Friday has the answer! NPR’s Holiday Science Spotlight featured a short video where microbiologists Vince Fischetti and Raymond Schuch, from The Rockefeller University in New York, ran some experimental tests on a vat of spiked eggnog. The microbiologists tested Dr. Rebecca Lancefield’s eggnog recipe  to see if any Salmonella bacteria cultures could grow.

Interestingly, the microbiologists found no culture growth from the vat of homemade eggnog with alcohol after it sat in the fridge for three weeks. The sterilization could have happened because the concentration of alcohol was so high that most bacteria could not grow in it. The CDC does not recommend the consumption of raw of eggs so next time you pour yourself a glass of eggnog you should probably add some brandy just to be on the safe side.

Source: http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/general/index.html

By Colleen Murphy



A World Without Water Bottles

What if there was a biodegradable water bottle that you could also eat? Skipping Rocks Lab, a startup based in London founded by three scientists, made this idea a reality and created Ooho! Ooho is basically a clear gel bag made of calcium chloride (an ionic compound of calcium and chlorine) and brown algae made through a process known as spherification.  Spherification is a technique that shapes liquids into spheres with a thin, double membrane with an intermembrane space that keeps the water on the inside clean and hygienic. While the gel sphere is being formed, the water has to be kept frozen as ice in order to keep the ingredients of the gel inside the membrane and out of the water later.

The Ooho was considered innovative enough to win an award at the 2014 Lexus Design Challenge, and Time magazine said “This edible water blob could replace plastic water bottles.” Even more amazing than Ooho’s ability to reduce the number of plastic bottles piling up in the landfills is the cost of producing the Ooho costs two whole cents to produce. The industrial design scientists responsible for Ooho decided to license the recipe and instructions under Creative Commons which means that anyone can replicate it for free. The reason behind making the recipe accessible with Creative Commons was so others could make the Ooho at home to further improve the recipe.

However, this innovative water device has its limitations that have raised some concerns. Many people think the Ooho will pop in a backpack or purse. Others are concerned about what happens after you pop the membrane? In the promotional video the water seems to spill all over the table which means that drinking from the Ooho would be somewhat messy. Besides the mess, once you drink from the Ooho it is not like a water bottle where you can drink some water then put the cap back on. Some others also wondered how the membrane would taste since its only ingredients seem to be calcium chloride and brown algae, so would someone even want to consume it?

While the Ooho may have its limitations it is still in the early stages of development. Thanks to the Creative Commons licensing of the recipe, some of these limitations could be solved. Then the Ooho really could replace plastic water bottles everywhere. For now though, I have signed up to be beta tester for the Ooho and will continue to use my reusable water bottle until further notification about Ooho!

By Colleen Muprhy








While in I was Houston for the Thanksgiving holidays, I decided to go to the Museum of Natural Science to view the documentary ROBOTS 3D. ROBOTS 3D is about the progress of humanoid robots that are designed to move, see, and even process information like humans. I live tweeted the documentary then created a storify to give a full review of the film.


Microbiologists Turned Artists

Microbes are generally viewed as pests- not an art medium. However, the American Society of Microbiologist (ASM) hosts an annual art contest that challenges microbiologists and artists to create microbial masterpieces. Microbiologists and artist work together to use microbes as the “paint” on the agar canvas. Agar is a gelatin substance that is used for growing and culturing microbes in a laboratory. This contest is a test of plating skills and submissions are judged based on creativity, design, and presentation. Each submission is judged on a written description about the microbe art, scientific accuracy, and appropriateness of the design for a general audience.

For the 2015 ASM Agar Art, out of 85 submissions there were first, second, and third place winners along with a People’s Choice. Despite there only being a few official winners, an album of photos of the submissions can be found on the ASM Facebook page which recognizes all the participants. The designs ranged from classical, like a replica of Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, to mainstream, such as the giant microbial map of New York City which took home second place. However the designs were not the only unique part, the microbes used had a special significance to the design.

Harvest Season

Harvest Season

Photo Credit: American Society Microbiology/Maria Eugenia Inda from Argentina

Third place went to this plate which depicts a scene with a humble farm house made using a species of yeast known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This yeast is the active agent in many popular foods such as bread, wine, and beer. Saccharomyces cerevisiae is also the model organism for eukaryotes.

The Wild Garden of Gut Bacteria

Gut bacteria garden

Photo Credit: American Society of Microbiologists/Nicola Fawcett of England

The inspiration for this design came from the comparison of that the bacterial community in the gut of humans is like a garden. The mixture of bacteria was plated on to chromogenic agar which changes colors based on specific enzymes in the bacteria. The pale lavender color indicates the presence of Escherichia coli, a common gram-negative bacteria. The turquoise indicates the presence of Citrobacter koseri, a normal microbial resident in the gut of humans. The dark blue color indicates the presence of Klebisella pneumoniae, which is a multi-drug-resistant bacteria.

North Carolina

North Carolina

Photo Credit: American Society of Microbiologists/North Carolina branch

This design may be simple, but the bacteria used was Chromobacterium violaceum an opportunistic “flesh-eating” pathogen. Most infections from this bacteria arise in immunocompromised individuals along with those who have chronic granulomatous disease (CGD), but to most people the organism is harmless.

Cell to Cell

Cell to Cell

Photo Credit: American Society of Microbiologists/Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Penil from Massachusetts

This design did not win first, second, or third place but instead won the People’s Choice with over 3,000 likes on Facebook. The red cell represents Serratia, a genus of gram-negative bacteria, extending itself to the yellow cell of the genus Nesterenkonia. The orange tendrils of the cells are made of gram-positive bacteria of the genus Deinococcus and genus Sphingomonas.

These are just a few of the designs created by the talented scientists and artists of the ASM. The competition gave microbiologists the opportunity to show the lesser known artistic side of bacteria.

By Colleen Murphy





Up, Up, and Away

Back in September, I attended the Ascension Parish Hot Air Balloon Festival in Gonzalez, Louisiana. There was a variety of balloons with bright colors and different themes. I even had the opportunity to ride in a hot air balloon! Now when I say ride I mean the balloon was tethered and I went approximately 50 feet in the air, but it was still amazing.

Light up balloons

Photo Credit: Jake Yount

Besides wondering to myself why there would be a hot air balloon festival in southern Louisiana, I also wondered what was the science behind the hot air balloon. How does shooting a ball of fire into the center of a giant balloon make it rise into the air?


Photo Credit: Kate Wilson

Hot air balloons actually operate on a very simple principle- hot air rises in cooler air. Hot air is able to rise in cooler air because it has less mass per cubic foot of air. However, the amount of mass in one cubic foot of hot air versus cold air is quite small. One cubic foot of cold air weighs about 28 grams, but when the air is heated it weighs 7 grams less. Therefore, each cubic foot of hot air inside the hot air balloon can lift about 7 grams. One cubic foot of air lifting 7 grams is not a lot, but a collective 65,000 cubic feet of air can lift 1,000 pounds which is why hot air balloons have to be massive.

lone balloon at sunset

Photo Credit: Colleen Murphy

In order for the hot air balloon to keep rising in the sky, the air inside the balloon has to be constantly heated which is done by the burner positioned under the opening into the balloon. Many balloonists use propane to power the flame in the burner because it can be in a compressed liquid form and contained in a lightweight cylinder. The balloons are often made of nylon because it is a lightweight, sturdy fabric and will not melt at high temperatures. The skirt is the part at the base of the balloon which is also made of nylon but coated in fire-resistant material to prevent the balloon for catching fire. The baskets for hot air balloons are often made of wicker because it is a tough material, but is also flexible and lightweight. Since wicker is flexible it helps to absorb the shock of impact upon landing the balloon.

Hot air balloons are a balancing act that work with a knowledge of science. While they may not be the most efficient forms of travel, they continue to amaze people when large colorful balloons rise up into the air.

Fire balloon

Photo Credit: Kate Wilson

Citation: http://science.howstuffworks.com/transport/flight/modern/hot-air-balloon.htm

By Colleen Murphy

A Small Collection from Clark Creek Natural Area

LSU’s campus just had its Fall break, which means no class during the week for students. My friends and I decided to take advantage of the rare cool fall weather in Louisiana and drive to Clark Creek Natural Area in Woodville, Mississippi.  One of my friends had just completed her dendrology course (the scientific study of trees), so she was identifying trees for us along the hike. Here is just a small sample of the beautiful wilderness found in Clark Creek:

American beautyberry

American Beuty Berry

Scientific Name: Callicarpa americana

The American beautyberry can grow five to eight feet tall and almost as wide with drooping branches. The stems of the branches are slender with a gray to reddish brown color. The leaves on the branches have an elliptical to ovate shape with tiny, jagged edges. The small berry clusters contain two to four seeds that are about 1/16 inches long in length. Many animals, such as multiple species of birds, armadillos, raccoons, and gray foxes, depend on these berries for food.

The Agricultural Research Service studied this plant and found two unique compounds – callicarpenal and intermedeol. These chemical compounds, found in the leaves of the American beautyberry plant, makes the plant a good repellent for mosquitos. Historically, farmers in the earlier part of the 20th century would crush the leaves and rub it on their skin to repel mosquitos. Before the farmers used the American beautyberry, several Native American tribes used the plant for medicinal purposes. For example, the roots and berries were boiled into a liquid that the Native Americans drank to treat colic.

Further information and citation: http://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_caam2.pdf


Muscle bark

Scientific Name: Carpinus caroliniana 

Musclewood is just one of the many common names for American hornbeam. Other names the tree is known by are ironwood, muscle beech, blue beech and water beech. The two subspecies of American hornbean are Carpinus caroliniana Walter ssp. caroliniana and Carpinus caroliniana Walter ssp. virginiana. There are distinct physical differences between the leaf shape and length of the two species that makes them distinguishable. Subsp. caroliniana has leaves that are a narrow oval shape that are shorter than the leaves of subsp. virginiana that abruptly narrow at the tip. Also the two subspecies are found in different parts of the United States. The tree produces seeds, buds, or catkins that are a food source for a variety of creatures, such as songbirds, turkeys and foxes. American hornbeam trees are not very large but the wood from the tree does not crack or split easily which is why American pioneers used it to make bowls and dishes. Beavers also use American hornbeams to build dams, and they eat the leaves, twigs and stems because it is typically found in beaver habitat areas.

Further information and citation: http://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_caca18.pdf

Yellow poplar and poison ivy

yellow poplar with poisen ivy

Scientific name: Liriodendron tulipifera

Interestingly, the yellow poplar tree is not classified as a poplar but is actually classified under the magnolia family.  The leaves of the yellow poplar tree are typically smooth with a dark green in color and tulip shape. Flowers that bloom on the yellow poplar are light greenish-yellow in a tulip shape. The wood of the yellow poplar is used for furniture stock, veneer and pulpwood for paper production because it is soft, smooth and easily workable. Since yellow poplar can grow very quickly it is often planted in reforestation efforts.

Further information and citation: http://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_litu.pdf

Scientific name: Toxicodendron radicans

As the old saying goes, “Leaves of three, let them be.” Despite the number of leaves, the color of the leaves changes from reddish yellow to green based on the season of the year.  Poison ivy contains a sap called urushiol that covers the root, stems, flowers and leaves. The urushiol is the cause of the irritations and rash in people. The rash cannot be spread by touching blisters on skin; however, if there are remnants of urushiol on cloth or even animal fur, then a rash can develop.

Further information and citation: http://www.mga.edu/risk-management/docs/environmental-services/Poison_Ivy_Fact_Sheet.pdf

Southern magnolia tree in the early stages

Baby Magnolia Tree

Scientific name: Magnolia grandiflora

The United States National Arboretum has listed magnolias as one of the oldest tree species in the world. In fact, the southern magnolia is often harvested for its wood because it is the hardest and heaviest of all the magnolia species. The Southern magnolia is a flowering evergreen tree with a straight light brown/gray-brown trunk and thick leaves that have a shiny surface on top and fuzzy texture below. Because of their similar appearance, Southern magnolia can sometimes be confused with the Rhododendron maximum, better known by its common name – the great laurel. The beautiful white, fragrant flowers on the Southern magnolia are monoecious which means the flower contains both male and female reproductive parts. Even though the Southern magnolia tree is just beginning to grow in this picture, Southern magnolia trees can grow to be as tall as they are wide.

Further information and citation: http://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_magr4.pdf

These are just a few examples of the amazing flora I was able to see at Clark Creek. The next time you go on a hike, you can use the plants database from the United States Department of Agriculture to see what plants are native to the area. Take some pictures, write down some observations, and maybe even become an amateur dendrologist by the end of the day. But no matter what, you can always enjoy the beauty of nature.

Rock pathSunlight

Written by Colleen Murphy

All photos courtesy of Jake Yount