“Lights, Camera, Infection”
by Jeanne Erdmann
Nature, July 29, 2009
[Erdmann notes: This was my second pitch to Nature. The first made it through to the editors’ meeting but didn’t sell. The editor I’d been working with on the pitches expressed an interest in following an infection in real time. I’d never seen an episode of “24” but it was still a pretty hot show in 2009 and it struck me that it would really be fun to model the story after the show. So I spent a lot of time one weekend watching episodes on the web and crafted the pitch after the web format of “24”. The Nature editors took the story but thought that the “Jack Bauer format would be a bit over the top.]
24 – Bacteria Attack
Dossier: Like Jack Bauer, fictional hero of the television series 24, microbiologists gather intelligence on deadly foes; in this case it’s pathogenic bacteria. Scientists traditionally study how infections take hold by analyzing molecules produced by cells in culture dishes. Multiphoton microscopy turns this around by allowing scientists to image cell behaviour and then go back and study genes or molecules.
Episode recap: The following episode takes place in a laboratory at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Microbiologist Agneta Richter-Dahlfors traveled from her lab in Sweden to study the dynamics of bacterial infections using a multiphoton microscope, a modern marvel of a tool whose ability to video infections in living animals is far superior to ordinary microscopes. Multiphoton microscopy is giving scientists a first-hand glimpse at what happens during the first 24 hours of an infection. In Indiana, Richter-Dahlfors deploys a multiphoton microscope to follow bacteria as they invade and infect part of a rat’s kidney. She wants to find out how the kidneys keep bacteria in check.
Agneta Richter-Dahlfors walks across campus at the Indiana University School of Medicine School in Indianapolis. As the doors leading to the nephrology lab come into view, she ponders today’s experiment. Richter-Dahlfors studies how Escherichia coli cause kidney infections. Most strains of E. coli are harmless, but some strains can cause problems like food poisoning, urinary tract infections, or kidney infections. Sometimes, the bacteria do irreparable harm before symptoms of infection arise. For example, by the time people feel feverish or feel the signature back pain of a kidney infection, bacteria have already damaged tissue. In the kidneys, and sometimes elsewhere, this damage can’t be reversed. Scientists studying kidney infections normally inject bacteria into the bladder, wait four days, then they dissect the kidney and, using a conventional microscope, look for signs of the bacteria themselves and for tissue damage. Often, the infected part of a kidney is hard to find because damage is limited to a single area.
Instead, Richter-Dahlfors has developed a way to follow the dynamics of a kidney infection from the moment bacteria entered a single nephron. These loopy strands crisscross the kidneys. They act as filters, straining the body’s waste. The filters are extraordinarily delicate: In rats, they’re smaller than a human eyelash. A few years ago, Richter-Dahlfors and her team figured out how to isolate single nephrons from the several hundred thousand in a rat’s kidney. They can inject that nephron with a strain of
E. coli known to cause kidney infections. By genetically modifying those bacteria to glow green, she and her team can image what happens in the animal’s body in real time. Scientists already know that blood flow shuts off around infected nephrons, which leads to tissue damage and scarring. Today, Richter-Dahlfors wants to figure out why that happens. She has her suspicions.
The bacterial cultures are growing. Later today, Richter-Dahlfors will fill tiny needles with fresh, green-fluorescent bacteria. With a surgeon, she will inject 300,000 bacteria into two nephrons. Most of the bacteria will wash out in the urine. A few bacteria, the most deadly, will grab onto nearby tissue and start dividing. Richter-Dahlfors will follow what happens over the next 8 to 12 hours using the multiphoton microscope. The clock is ticking…
Characters: Scientists with a molecular bent are skeptical that watching films of cells in action can be quantitative. Richter-Dahlfors and others are trying to convince them otherwise. Like Richter-Dahlfors, Immunologist Mark Miller, of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, observes bacterial behaviour in spleens and other areas; then looks for the molecular basis for that action. He likens this approach to “a naturalist studying a herd of gazelles.” Miller’s work on the spleen has provided new insight into how and why the spleen helps immune cells remember a pathogen. This approach is gaining ground. Other scientists have explained how bacterial proteins destroy immune cell’s ability to fight back. Work in the brain shows that inflammation sparks construction of a fiber network that helps invading cells move along.
Profile: This story would follow what happens in the first 24 hours of an infection using a narrative of hour-by-hour events. I would use time stamps to help the narrative along. While this feature will survey a field at a particular moment, this work has a strong story to tell. I will weave in other work as background, or to amplify a point made with regard to the main narrative subject. I’d also use text boxes to provide supporting information
on the scientists and to explain, for example how multiphoton microscopy works. This type of microscopy not only provides new details into the first hours of an infection it also provides good images to illustrate the story. Some scientists have films, which could be posted on Nature.com.
About Me: I’ve written for lots of publications, most recently for Science News and Sciam.com. I’ve attached links to some stories and I’m happy to provide more. While I specialize in medical science, I also write a lot of engineering stories.