SGU Episode 569

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SGU Episode 569
June 4th 2016
SGU 568 SGU 570
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria

Quote of the Week
If you’re not comfortable with the unknown, then it’s difficult to be a scientist… I don’t need an answer. I don’t need answers to everything. I want to have answers to find
Brian Cox
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello, and welcome to The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, June 1st, 2016; and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

NECSS 2016 (0:26 )[edit]

John Horgan Attacks Skeptics (3:10)[edit]

(His criticism is that skeptics focus on Bigfoot instead of serious issues like stopping war)

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (15:48)[edit]

  • Andrew Benson

News Items[edit]

Cell Phones and Cancer Again (19:34)[edit]

Total Bacterial Resistance (29:27)[edit]

S: All right, Cara, I think this next item is also one in which there might be some hyped fear in the media. But you tell me. Are bacteria becoming totally resistant?

E: (Mock gasp)

C: Bacteria actually are becoming totally resistant, but what has happened most recently in the media is not necessarily an example of that. You know, we talk a lot on SGU about how part of our job is to try and quell some of those fears around bad science reporting. There is some really good science reporting on this story, and some not-so-good science reporting.

That said, it's not the apocalypse yet, but there's another nail potentially in the coffin of antibiotic resistance. So, specifically, what we're talking about this week as you may have seen in the news is Colistin resistance. And Colistin resistance is a little worrisome only because many people view colistin as a last resort antibiotic.

It actually kind of stopped being prescribed in the seventies because most antibiotics are really safe and have really minimal side effects, maybe some intestinal kind of discomfort. Colistin has a lot of unpleasant side effects. And there are other antibiotics in its place historically that could do the job just as well. So it's just not commonly prescribed any more unless somebody is experiencing multi antibiotic resistance.

So let's break down what actually happened. Researchers at Walter Reid Hospital got a sample from a woman in Pennsylvania who had a urinary tract infection. UTI's are often caused by E Coli. Hers was no different. But hers seemed to be resistant to multiple classes of antibiotics, and they wanted to see how broad this resistance ran.

So they pulled an isolate out of urine bacteria called MRSN388634. I'll say that once. It's not really that relevant any more, but that is what we're calling this isolate in her E Coli. Turns out that isolate actually did contain a specific gene called the MCR1 gene. Now the MCR1 gene is a little bit scary. And the reason the MCR1 gene is a little bit scary is because we've seen Colistin resistance before. But generally speaking, the bacteria that's resistant to Colistin is resistant because it contains an enzyme that's produced in the chromosomal DNA of the bacteria.

And chromosomal DNA is generally well protected within a bacterium. It's deep inside. It's not in the nucleus (bacteria don't have nucleii), but it's deep inside of the cell. Bacteria also have a type of DNA called plasmid DNA, which is kind of a naked, single strand. It's on a round portion that's very easily swapped. Bacteria don't just share plasmas with parent cells and daughter cells, but they can also share plasmids linearly, sort of across other bacteria species, same species, or even different species.

So this is where we see a lot of antibacterial resistance happening, is with this plasmid shuffling. And the MCR1 gene specifically lives in a plasmid, which makes it much more worrisome. So now we're not just talking about Colistin-resistant bacteria; we're talking about Colistin-resistant bacteria that have their resistance gene present on a piece of DNA that's really easy to swap with other bacteria. And this woman was found to have that gene.

Now, it turns out that it wasn't really clinically significant for her because a combination of antibiotics did annihilate her infection. She's perfectly healthy; she was able to go about her day. Her infection was not what we call pan-resistant, which means totally antibiotic-resistant. There were antibiotics available to her that could clear up her E Coli – her urinary tract infection E Coli. But this was significant. And the reason so many outlets are reporting on it is because this is the first time that MCR1 was found in America.

Now, in November of 2015, Chinese researchers found a similar case of Colistin-resistance; and then following that, Danish researchers also found Colistin-resistance in urinary tract infection E Coli involving that MCR1 gene. We've also seen since this discovery, the woman was actually sick in April, and her bacteria went to Walter Reid then. Her clinical case was published in May 2016 issue of Anti-Microbial Agents and Chemotherapy.

Since then, we've even seen a blog post released by the USDA, and the department of health and human services, announcing that they discovered Colistin-resistant bacteria in a sample taken from the intestine of a pig here in America. So now we've got one clinical case, one agricultural case. So we do see that this Colistin-resistance is happening.

We also see that that woman's clinical history showed that she hadn't left the country in the preceding five months, which means that this was a domestic case.

E: So it's out there somewhere else to be had. We haven't

C: Exactly

E: figured out whether people have it.

C: Exactly. She didn't pick it up internationally, or if she did, it was from another vector, like somebody

E: Yeah

C: came in from there, which means that there could be more people infected. Now it turns out that this Pennsylvania woman's E Coli carried fifteen genes for resistance to other antibiotics across two plasmids. There were seven on one, and six on the other.

J: So what does that mean?

C: So that means that the specific DNA within her E Coli had the potential to share fifteen other genes with local or nearby bacteria, and cause those bacteria to also be antibiotic-resistant. So fifteen different drugs wouldn't work against her UTI, which is very dangerous; and it's approaching pan-resistance; not quite there yet. But there are two.

And so that's why I think we have to kind of temper our responses to these publications, right? We see, it's the last ditch effort. We can't do anything else. Yes, with these UTI bacteria, we're very, very close; but it does seem that there is some clinical availability still with using multiple antibacterial agents, antibiotics, on these patients.

The real fear, I think, is in the under-reported case of two bacteria that we know about, that are pan-resistant. And I'm not gonna pronounce them well, but I'm going to try: That's acinedovectorbuamani, which is a gram-negative coxobacillus, which can infect people with compromised immune systems; and pseudomonus arugenosa, which is a gram-negative rod-shaped bacteria, and that one's implicated in sepsis, and also it's very common in ventilator-associated pneumonia. Both of these are common hospital-acquired bacteria.

You often hear about MRSA, which, methocillin-resistance staff, which is dangerous. It's methocillin-resistant. But when we talk about hospital-acquired quote, “superbugs.” two hospital-acquired superbugs actually are pan-resistant, meaning that if you catch them, we cannot kill them. We have no drugs available to us to do so.

So this is a worry. I think the alarm bells should be sounded, but I think we need to understand what the cause for worry is. And of course, link this back to the conversation that had just a few weeks ago on the show, about what clinicians are starting to try to do, and about how we as patients can try to take more responsibility in our course of treatment, and only take antibiotics when we know that they're necessary.

S: You know what I learned since we talked about this last time is that (and I didn't even think about this), in a lot of other countries, antibiotics are available over the counter! You can get

C: Yeah

S: over

B: What?!

S: the counter antibiotics in Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. And in fact, sometimes those antibiotics are brought into the United States and sold over the counter in little shops and stores, you know.

B: That's insane!

J: They've gotta change that immediately.

E: Yeah, why don't these countries adopt new policies?

S: Well, there is some call for tightening the over the counter regulations in these countries. Some call

B: (Chuckles) A little tightening? We're doomed.

E: (Laughs) The bugs will win.

S: We're trying to tweak our antibiotic use, and it's available over the counter in other countries, so this is a worldwide problem, and I think this is perfect topic for like, the World Health Organization. I think this is like why the World Health Organization exists, is for issues like this.

Bumble Bees Sense Electric Fields (38:17)[edit]

What is happening in our oceans? (47:30)[edit]

S: All right, Jay,

J: (Annoyed) What?

S: Tell us all the weird stuff that's happening in our oceans, what's happening?

J: This is really crazy, guys. Apparently – we don't know exactly what the causes are – but things have been observed in our oceans that we can't fully explain. So here is a list of sea creatures, and the things that have been changing about them, or things that we have observed that we can't fully wrap our heads around.

So one thing: Humpback whales. Bob, you know what a whale is, right?

B: (Grumpy) Yeah

E: There be whales here!

J: Humpback whales that live in the Pacific ocean typically travel south in the winter to find warmer waters. Now, if anyone has traveled to Hawaii ...

C: Goin' there in January.

J: Yeah, I don't know if January ... nah, I don't think that's the right time of year to see the whales 'cause they come and they travel through the area that Hawaii is in, I think in the fall.

C: Yeah, whale season's starting in L.A. here. Like, we're going whaling next month, I think, to go – not whaling, we're not killing whales – jesus christ. We're going out in a boat to look at whales next month.

(Cara and Evan laugh)

E: We're gonna shoot whales – with my camera!

(Cara laughs hard)

J: So anyway, so after Cara is done slaughtering all these poor whales

C: Oh jesus! (Continues laughing)

E: Like a Japanese fishing boat

J: Whatever's left are gonna go to Hawaii, and they're gonna tell everyone how much Cara sucks. (Cara laughs) But anyway, so the whales, they travel south to get to warmer waters 'cause they like the water temperature to be pretty relative. And it's typical that they make it down really far south, and oddly this year, whale surveys have shown that less than one third of the expected number of whales showed up compared to a survey that was done in 2010. One third the numbers.

So I don't think anybody is saying, “Well, are they dead? What happened to all the whales?” It's just that a lot of them aren't going as far south because they don't need to!

C: Because it's warm over there.

J: Yeah, the water's warming up. And they just don't have to go all the way down to Hawaii. So they also noticed that of the pods that they've observed, they noticed that there were less calves as well, and that's kind of scary.

C: Not good.

J: Yeah, that's sad. Now, you guys remember the whole star fish or the sea star melting thing, right? You remember that they were dissolving? This was reported back in – I believe around 2013. So this was due to a virus called, “Denzovirus,” and Denzovirunae, Evan, are viruses that are distinct in that they mostly infect invertebrates either marine or terrestrial ecosystems. And the virus is really nasty, guys, because it actually dissolves – or makes the starfish lose their limbs.

So back in 2013, when this way hitting the Pacific coast really hard, what they found though is that recently starfish have been having a ton of babies.

S: They're sea stars. Please don't say, “Starfish;” they're sea stars.

J: They're sea stars. I know, I corrected the articles that I was reading, but yes, I did say “sea stars” if you paid attention to my earlier ...

B: I noticed it Jay, I was very proud of you.

E: I saw stars.

J: Thank you. Steve, these starfish have been hittin' it hard. There's been tons of baby starfish (Cara laughs) – I'm serious! And it's reported that there's three hundred times the expected number of baby starfish.

C: It's like jellyfish.

J: And I just was thinking that maybe the warm water turns them on, you know? Like maybe the hot water is just gettin' them all hot, and then they're like, “Yo! Yeah, let's get it on!” So anyway, I don't know, Evan ...

C: You think that's why?

J: Well, something is affecting them. So it's either that, or it's all the music that we're pouring into the ocean.

C: Or it could be that a lot of their predators are being killed off because they can't survive the heat or the acidity.

S: Or because there's no sea stars to eat, so the predators die off, and now all the

C: Exactly

S: young ones are surviving. Or maybe, an interesting other hypothesis – I don't know if there's anything to this, that they may know that the populations are really down in some way, and then they may send signals to be hyper-prolific.

I actually pulled the study that demonstrated that the densovirus was causing the wasting disease. I just want to read you the first couple sentences. Tell me if you notice anything.

Populations of at least twenty asteroid species
Isn't that cool? That they're called “asteroid?”

J: Aw,

C: Yeah

J: that's awesome!

of the northeast Pacific coast, they've recently experienced an extensive outbreak of sea star wasting disease. The disease leads to behavioral changes, lesions, loss of turgor, limb autotamy, and death characterized by rapid degredation.

And then in quotation marks, “melting.”

J: Yep

S: That's in the scientific paper. Did you notice anything else in that sentence?

C: Autotomy!

J: Autotomy!

C: Autotomy! And we didn't even notice because

J: I did notice!

C: now that we know what it means,

E: Gosh!

C: we just processed it.

S: Isn't that funny? I just learned

E: Totally!

C: Yes!

S: and now a week later, I'm reading it in a technical paper.

J: And you own it, like it's yours, Steve. All right! Continue!

B: I really wish I remembered what it.

E: Look it up.

J: Let me continue!

S: Autotomy is when a creature drops a limb, basically.

C: It translates to self-surgery, but really, it's the limb-dropping.

S: So they're dropping their arms off the sea stars.

C: (Sad) Oh.

E: Aw.

J: They should come up with a term similar to that about name-dropping.

C: You use that a lot in L.A.

J: Bob, cephalopods. Have you heard of cephalopods?

B: No, cephalo-pods.

J: Cephalo-pods. Now, who were the cephalophods?

E: Boy band or something.

B: No, they're related to zephod Bebobrox.

J: What were the Transformers called? The cephalotrons or something?

C: Decepticons?

E: Decepticons!

S: Cephalotrons?

J: Cephalotrons! Okay.

C: The Decepticons, and the Autobots.

E: And the Autobots, yeah.

J: And the cephalopods, as you know, these are octopusses, cuddlefishes, and squiddies.

C: Squiddies.

J: Squiddies! It's the plural of squids. These creatures have been apparently having a lot of successful sex as well! I told you! It's the freaking temperature of the water. Over the past sixty years, a huge population growth has been happening in the cephalopods. Some theories are that warm waters could affect their life cycle – you see? I was right! And these animals are filling holes made from over-fishing – and other holes as well. (Laughs)

E: Because nature abhors a void.

C: Why are you so excited by that?

J: Sorry! But I didn't write that down; this is right off the top of my head. Anyway, continuing on, two more things guys.

E: Yep

J: The Dungeonis crab – you ever hear of the Dungeonis crab?

E: I've heard of the Dungeonis and Dragons crab too!

J: That's right. (Bob chuckles) 1998, a ton of sea lions started dying on the coast of California because they were eating a crab who ended up becoming toxic. The Dungeonis crab was poisoned pretty much by the weather. Check this out: A non-typical weather patterns caused warm water in the Pacific ocean, which spawned a rapid growth of algae. And the algae was toxic.

The crabs ate the algae, and then they became toxic, and then the sea lions ate the crabs, and a ton of them died.

C: Jesus, that's so sad!

J: Yep, and that's definitely because of rising temperatures.

E: There's the food chain in action gone awry.

J: One last thing: Coral, globally, over the past year, scientists are observing that coral has been turning white. Now, by the way, I'm not talking about the kid who plays Rick's son on The Walking Dead.

C: I don't get it, 'cause I don't watch that show.

(Evan sings a tune)

J: Coral, that's how he says his name. Coral!

E: Coral! (Bob laughs) Get over here Coral.

J: Coral, yeah. Thank you, Bob! Wow, one fricking Walking Dead Watcher. All right.

E: I watch it!

J: They call it, “coral bleaching.” I'm sure you guys have heard of this. And what it means is that the warming oceans have been causing the coral to shed the algae that gives them their color. So when you see coral reef, and you see the bright colors, that's because they're covered in this algae, and each algae is different and in different colors, right?

The problem is that the coral polyps, which are the creatures that actually make the coral skeleton, they eat the algae! All right, so the problem is that the coral polyps are the creatures that actually make the coral skeleton, and the algae that lives on and in them is shedding, essentially, the food that they eat. So when the algae (because of the water temperature increase) when the algae disconnects from the coral polyps, the coal dies because it doesn't have anything to eat. And that's it! That's what the coral bleaching is. It's the algae decoupling from the coral. And they have a symbiotic relationship, and neither one can really live without the other. So the two creatures die (makes fart noise), and there you go.

C: And then everything dies.

J: Yeah.

C: Yeah, everything dies when the coral dies.

J: Now, to be fair, a lot of damage to coral reefs is also done by visitors, by people stepping on them, touching them,

E: Yeah, touching it.

J: breaking bits off. It's really bad to touch a coral reef. Apparently, even just your finger could do some serious damage to it. So please guys, anybody, how about just don't go visit them for ten years? Let's have some regrowth, and hopefully we'll ...

C: Ah ....

S: They're purdy.

C: I don't know if they'll be there in ten years. I mean, the great

E: Oh my gosh!

C: barrier reef lost, what, seventy percent of its mass?

E: What? Since when?

C: Um, I'm looking it up.

S: So let me add a couple details, Jay. So, the coral, when it bleaches, when it expels the algae and then it turns white, it's not dead at that point. But it is under a lot of stress, and it is in trouble. And a lot of coral will die after and because of the bleaching event. But some survive. There are some robust coral that will survive a bleaching event. So in a way, the most robust coral survives these events. But of course,

B: It's selection pressure!

S: if it's stressful enough, it could really cause a huge die off. The other thing that's interesting is like, so the question is: Now the stress in this situation that we're seeing now is because of warming water, and that warming water is probably partly due to global warming. But it's also caused by El Nino. So they knew this was gonna happen. They predicted this a year ago. They said, “Oh, El Nino's gonna warm the waters, and we're gonna have a coral bleaching event.” And we did. So this was completely predicted.

C: It's thirty-five percent coral death in the Great Barrier Reef right now, which has led to ... I can't find the exact number of all of the other organisms that are dying as a result

S: Yeah

C: of, but thirty-five percent in this coral bleaching event specifically.

B: Wow!

E: My gosh!

S: Coral shelters twenty-five percent of marine species.

E: Ugh! That's a lot! That's unbelievable.

C: It's like the coral reef is the rain forest of the sea.

S: Yeah, right.

C: Like it really has some of the most biodiversity of all of the oceans.

Who's That Noisy (58:17)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: “Leftover” MP3 noise

What's the Word (1:01:41)[edit]

  • Cauliflory

S: Cara, can I ask you a question?

C: Yes.

S: What's the word?

C: (Shouting) Whooo! (Calmer) I'm excited. The word this week is a fun one. And it was recommended by a listener named Kouhoutek (something tells me that's not your real name), from Denver, Colorado. Maybe it is. And Kouhoutek says that he or she learned the word touring the Theo Chocolate factory in Seattle.

S: Isn't is Kahotech?

C: Is it Kahotech?

S: I think isn't that how you're ///

C: Kouhoutek.

S: Kahotech.

C: Kahotech.

B: That does ring a bell. Where have we heard that?

C: Coo-hoo?

S: It's like an Egyptian god or something, right?

E: That's El Hupotep.

C: That's Imhotep.

B: Imhotep.

C: I don't know.

S: Like, that's the only one?

C: It might be – yes, that is the only one!

(Rogues laugh)

B: Only one!

C: It's the only one I've heard of. It's the only one that exists.

E: The cat god.

C: So the word is, “cauliflory.”

E: Oh, perfect.

C: Who has an old school rotary phone? What was that?

J: What the hell?

E: Bob?

B: I don't know. My phone is on “silent,” and it was an alarm.

S: Okay, when I looked up Cahotech, K-O-H-O-U-T-E-K.

C: K-O-U-H-O-U-T-E-K is how they spelled it. But yeah, it's probably supposed to be that.

S: Comet Kohoutek, that's what you remember.

B: Yes!!

C: The comet!

B: Yes! Yes!

E: Oh!

C: That's way cooler. You're

S: First sighted

C: my hero.

S: in March 1973 by Czhech astronomer Loubos Kouhoutek.

B: Is that who wrote us?

C: Yeah, from Denver now. (Bob and Cara laugh) He's relocated to Denver. So Kouhoutek, while you were touring this chocolate factory, you came across the word, “cauliflory.” And cauliflory is a noun. It's used in botany; and it refers to the production of flowers or fruits directly from the branches or trunks of plants.

J: Cool.

C: And we often find cauliflory in tropical locations. Interestingly, as pointed out by Kouhoutek, cauliflower is notly cauliflorous. Now in most plants, flowers or fruits develop on new growth, so these new little terminal branches that often have young stems on them, and are leafy. But in a truly cauliflorous plant, they grow on the trunks themselves or on old, dormant branches; and there are about one hundred different species of true cauliflorous plants.

And as the etymology, as the name really implies, that is the etymology literally translates from the Latin “caulus” - meaning “stem,” and “florous” - meaning flower. So of course you can see how “cauliflower” would arise similar to cauliflory even though the cauliflower plant is not truly a cauliflorous plant. But it is still “stem” and “flower” being utilized together to form that word.

Interesting. I like botany words. We don't do enough botany words.

S: I did notice that I know a lot more about animals than plants, and I've tried to shore up my botany knowledge. Like, I can pretty much go through all the orders of mammals and things like that, but I have no idea what all the different categories of plants are.

C: Plants are hard!

S: Yeah

C: And plant genetics is really hard because plants have so many genes, and they're not just like, haploid ... they can have like, four or six. They can have multiple

S: Yeah

C: pairs of genes. And plants have sex in weird ways; and they don't always have sex; and it's very complicated.

S: Right

C: I definitely respect all the botanists listening to the show right now. It's tough. And you get a bad rap. Nobody takes the plant physiology class. They always go for animal phys. Don't know why.

S: Because we're biased.

E: Because we're closer

C: Exactly

E: cousins. (Laughs)

C: That would make sense, yeah.

S: Well guys, let's move on to Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:05:29)[edit]

(Science or Fiction music)
It's time for Science or Fiction

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:20:24)[edit]

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.

Today I Learned:[edit]

  • Steve explains why the SGU talks about skepticism instead of pacifism or some other issue. Basically, he feels that skepticism is his strength.
  • Steve also says that he doesn't really care if people believe in Bigfoot. He just uses the issue to teach critical thinking skills.
  • This episode contains an interesting in depth discussion on all of the science and pseudoscience of bumble bees


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