With months of no rainfall, the summer drought threatened to change the history books. Long Island no longer qualified as New York’s choice vacation spot. With fires ablaze in the Pine Barrens, tap water unsafe for consumption, crops failing, air quality reduced, and animals suffering, nothing was spared.
At Brookstone, school had just ended, and students were evacuating as quickly as possible. Summer schoolers left behind were basically of two types: those trying to get ahead, and those lagging behind. Some sought to complete degrees early. Others were taking coursework they’d been avoiding, or were forced to repeat. Otherwise, there was no good reason to remain.
One summer course attended by many was a biology elective entitled “Microbes and Man”. It was a non-major’s option for fulfilling science requirements. High attendance was attributed to its amusing teacher, none other than Dr. Evo Lucio.
“Our topic today is slime,” Evo began, writing the word ‘BIOFILM’ in large letters on the chalkboard. He added a drip or two for accent. “Bacteria prefer to live in communities, not as separate individuals. Slime is what holds them together.
“It’s everywhere,” he continued. “Nearly all microbes make it; some to our advantage, some to our detriment. Slime serves many purposes.”
It was a foul subject, but someone had to study it. It was Evo’s charge to convey slime’s importance. The 50-odd students present were being schooled by the best in the business.
“Bacteria are social creatures,” Evo maintained. “They can exist separately, but work much better in masses attached to surfaces. We call these communities biofilms.”
From his computer, Dr. Lucio projected a cartoon of slime on the TV monitor. Bacteria were depicted as smiley-faced circles encased in slime and attached to a surface. A few errant, unattached bacteria bore sad faces, since they prefer to live in community.
Evo created his own visuals. Hailing from a family of artists, his lectures employed images, music, sounds, textures, smells; anything to keep his students entertained. With a red laser pointer, he encircled an unhappy, detached germ:
“These free-floaters are easy targets. But, nestled in a biofilm, they are protected.
Evo likened himself to a free-floater. He remained detached much of the time, immersed in his work. But, as with bacteria, being alone had a dark side. Solitude makes for a more unique and interesting person, but often graceless and unaware.
Despite being aloof, Evo was well received by his students. He offered them concepts and principles that went deeper than the rigid lesson plans. Beyond the drone of classroom training, students opened their eyes to Evo’s icky world.
“Take the mouth for example.” He projected a close-up of rotting teeth, covered with yellow-brown plaque. “With every swallow, millions of bacteria are destroyed by stomach acid. But the smart ones stick to your teeth to survive. We remove most of this dental plaque daily by brushing.” Evo scratched his front tooth and rolled his fingers together to make the point.
Teaching was just one of his many gifts. Evo was well put together for a man in his fifties. His thick, dark, wavy hair was well groomed, and his dress fashionable. He was so intense, you could feel his heart beat from a distance. No doubt, he had something going for him, judging from all the lovely women in attendance. Several dominated the front row.
Teaching non-majors wasn’t the greatest challenge, but Evo took it seriously. As a public advocate for science, he enjoyed translating difficult material for lay audiences. He wanted everyone to know how cool and ubiquitous slime is.
The word slime was rife with meaning. It oozed with negativity, implying something disgusting or evil. Slime was linked to insincerity and lack of integrity, in business, politics, or love. When integrity wanes, slime is allowed to fester. Evo had a love/hate relationship with bacterial slime, and respected its function in the cycle of things. But he was disgusted by slimy corporate practices, especially from Big Pharma, not to mention all the crooked lawyers and politicians in bed with them. Slime was deeper and more influential than most people could grasp.
Ironically, Evo was blind to his own slimy ways, as most of us are. Women to him were mere objects to be conquered. Commitment to one person made no sense, when so many could be had. Having it that easy, Evo avoided the responsibilities and hassles of long-term relationship, and paid no mind to how he might hurt others. Slime finds its way into all unexamined spaces.
Evo was classic Jekyll & Hyde: one kept him chasing success; the other, women. In both, the focus was intense and the love unbounded. The teacher and his subjects were inextricably linked.
Competition for front-row seats in Lucio’s class was tight, but Ayden Fry would not be denied. He got there early, and could care less what the pretty girls thought. They didn’t much care for him, either. Impatient for knowledge, he fidgeted in his chair, as Evo dumbed it down for other students. As a student teacher, Ayden had to be there, but he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Ayden was in awe of his mentor.
Who could blame him? Dr. Lucio’s presentations were memorable. Students experienced the world of microbes through his eyes. They saw germs as never before: clever opportunists clinging to teeth, boats and toilet bowls, exchanging chemicals with neighbors, adapting to community life, becoming resistant to antibiotics. Bacteria are a lot smarter than people give them credit.
Biofilms thrive even in great turbulence. Clumps of it frequently slough off, flow downstream, and adhere to other favorable sites. It eventually covers all surfaces. Evo conveyed this with words and illustrations. He was the Da Vinci of slime.
Part of Evo’s lure were his anti-slime agents. They were by far his greatest achievement, and essentially why Katey and Ayden were there. His mission was to promote MIFF, whenever and wherever. He was determined to advance the technology, save lives, secure his financial future, not to mention getting over with women. Increasing slime and anti-slime awareness was everything. You could not fault him for that.
“Biofilms are opportunists”, he told his students. “Once entrenched, they become resistant to antibiotics and our immune defenses.” Evo projected a series of graphic images, showing biofilms on a catheter, hip joint and heart valve. He’d seen these images often, but they maintained their uncanny impact.
“Attachment is the first step in infection,” he went on. “Starting with just a few bacteria stuck to a surface, billions can grow in a day. In a day or two, you can see, smell and feel the slime. It lines your pet’s water bowl, mucks up humidifiers, ventilators, contact lenses, corrodes metals, rots your teeth, and lines the toilet bowl. It mucks up industrial processes, such as shipping, food production, water quality, oil and gas production, pipelines, etc. Biofilms are part of waste management. Evo displayed a microscopic image of slime as a mushroom cloud.
“Wow! They’re like condos for germs,” said one lovely lady up front. Evo nodded willingly.
“Biofilm can be problematic,” he continued. “It prevents drainage on golf courses. It clogs pipes, filters, and drains. It fouls crude oil, and impedes the fracking process. The paper industry fights slime on its production lines, as do the meat and milk industries.” Evo showed several images for illustration. On his desk lay a metal pipe clogged with black sludge.
“The economic toll is staggering. Slime drag on the bottom of navy ships increases fuel consumption by 20%, costing billions to taxpayers. The rust on cars and bridges is catalyzed by slime. Disinfecting machinery and rebuilding infrastructure is costly.” Evo’s determined voice rose with the key points.
“Our battle with slime has polluted the earth with antibiotics, disinfectants, pesticides, plastics, and heavy metals. These toxins are as dangerous as the biofilms themselves. Antibiotics are becoming ineffective, due to overuse and abuse. Antibiotics also kill good bacteria that protect us from bad ones. It’s a complicated mess, and a major health care problem!” Evo took a sip of water, looked suspiciously at the plastic bottle, and continued.
“All things decay and are recycled by biofilms. It’s a natural and necessary process. Biofilms break down organic matter and release minerals. New life depends on it. We may cringe at the thought, but slime is essential for life to continue.”
Evo employed the words ‘slime’ and ‘biofilm’ interchangeably. ‘Biofilm’ was the technical, professional term, while ‘slime’ brought it back down to earth. Both had their places.
When necessary, Evo curtailed the slime talk. Frankly, there was no glamour in it. To avoid disdain, especially from the ladies, he often referred to MIFF as an antibiotic or antiseptic. That simplified things. But Evo was bent on being provocative in class.
“Take the vagina, for example, which harbors billions of friendly biofilm bacteria. Antibiotics damage these friendly flora, allowing harmful, malodorous germs to flourish. Biofilms can be beneficial, but also disagreeable.” A faint giggle filled the room.
Evo dithered between truth and audacity. He would do anything to please his students.
“Bathrooms are havens for slime, especially in the men’s room,” Evo joked. This time the room cracked with laughter, with women cringing in distaste.
“Once formed, biofilms require mechanical removal. It’s called brushing and scrubbing. Maybe you guys heard of them.” Again the laughter, and a few embarrassed faces. Evo played the mock and shock game to perfection.
“Most infections begin as biofilms. Patients with cystic fibrosis, cancer, burns, diabetes or AIDs are highly vulnerable to biofilm infections. Pneumonia, urinary tract and ear infections, colitis and sinusitis; they’re all biofilm mediated.
“Knee and hip replacements can easily be contaminated with biofilms, requiring their removal. Nearly 50% of wounded soldiers suffer from chronic, biofilm wound infections. None of our medicines work effectively against biofilms.”
“Was that hospital epidemic last week a biofilm?” one student asked.
“How did you stop it?” asked another. Word got around that Evo saved Brookstone and many lives in the process; another reason why his class was well attended.
“That was one slimy critter!” Ayden blurted. Evo nodded politely.
Katey added: “That thing crawled out of a manure pile in South America and rode on a crate of lettuce to our cafeteria. Hospital personnel spread it to their patients. Antibiotics couldn’t stop it, but cutting off the source of infection and proper hygiene/sanitation prevented further spread.” Evo basked briefly in the spotlight.
“What’s up with that stinky drug of yours?” asked a frisky lady up front.
“Was it used to kill the slime?” Most everybody at Brookstone was familiar with Evo’s new anti-biofilm agent and the rotten-egg smell emanating from his lab.
“Get a whiff of MIFF!” someone shouted.
“We’ve got much more refining to do before MIFF is approved for use,” Evo confessed. “That’s what we’re all about at this phase.”
Though still a work in progress, MIFF was the real deal. Movies like Ghost Busters or The Blob were not about real slime. Evo was the real deal. He was a legitimate slime fighter, with a real anti-slime agent.
Katey changed the topic: “So, biofilms can promote both infection and decay. What’s the difference?”
“Excellent question, Katey,” Evo replied. “Generally speaking, infection happens to the living, and decay happens to dead things. For example, a compost pile decays. Teeth decay, since the enamel is not living tissue. Infection is in living tissue, and is countered by an immune response.
“So, what role does immunity play with biofilms?” Katey asked. Without a spot of makeup, she still outclassed the other dolls in the room.
“Immunity’s half the equation,” Evo responded. “Our bodies are constantly under attack. We are weakened by age, toxins, stress, physical and emotional insults, the sun, poor nutrition, drugs, alcohol, smoking, pollution, lack of exercise, sleep, etc. Maintaining good immunity is challenging.
“It’s even more challenging when there’s an entrenched biofilm present. It’s much harder for our immune cells and antibodies to penetrate the biofilm and dismantle it. These are chronic infections creating chronic inflammation that wears down immunity.
“The most vulnerable are the very young and old, without strong immune defenses. There’s also those with pre-existing conditions. Hospitals expose patients to an array of nasty biofilms.
“Again, biofilms are opportunists. They take advantage of the weakest among us. They know how to wait. They’ll find your soft spot and take you down. So, a healthy immunity is everything, especially for prevention.” The class was left contemplating its own mortality.
Ayden leaned over his desk, absorbing every word. A nerd’s nerd, he lived and breathed science, and chose Brookstone expressly to do research with Dr. Lucio. There was no better place to be at this moment. He raised his hand, excitedly.
“Are biofilms catalysts for the 2nd law of thermodynamics?”
“Huh? What?” His classmates were like ‘Who’s the geek in the front row?’
“You could say that,” Evo replied, trying to recall his college physics.
“Everything breaks down and is recycled, and microbes play a huge role in it. Without microbes, dead bodies would accumulate. Forests would be impenetrable without decay, piled high with dead animals and trees. Biofilms penetrate dead material and help clear the debris. So, yes, biofilms are the foot soldiers for entropy.
“Sewage systems are perfect examples. Tons of human excrement are recycled daily. That’s a lot of shhh…” Evo stopped short, for a laugh or two. “What would life be like if excrement lingered?” That was entirely TMI for most. How often can one be disgusted in one sitting? Except for Ayden and Katey.
“Our guts are like sewage systems. Biofilms line our intestines to help digest food. There are 10,000 times more bacteria in a single human gut than there are people in the world. In fact, half our poop is bacteria!” Evo was innately clinical and crass.
“They’ve been around for billions of years,” Katey offered. “Perhaps we’re just doing their bidding.”
“Perhaps, but we’ve evolved together over time,” Evo suggested. “Most of the time we’re in harmony.”
“Some aren’t so harmonious,” Katey added.
“They’re just doing their jobs,” Ayden interjected.
“That’s true, Ayden! Bacteria are on the clean-up committee.”
Evo scanned the room, catching the eye of an attentive female. Like a mad scientist, with eyes wide open, he uttered “Everyone in this room will be dismantled by slime someday.” No one laughed. There was nothing funny about being eaten, dead or alive.
“Is that why rocks get slimy when it rains?” one student asked.
“Absolutely! We’ve all slipped on rocks wading in a stream. With each rainfall, biofilm bacteria release minerals from rocks, which help plants grow. It’s part of the cycle of life.”
Evo was wound up, buoyed by a slew of recent successes: his seminal MIFF paper was recently published; the MIFF patent was approved; his grant application was funded; and he was duly promoted to full professor, with a substantial pay hike. What’s more, he was a hero, having saved Brookstone from a deadly slime. His efforts were quickly bearing fruit.
Another young lady in the front row lured Evo in with a smile, followed by a curve ball: “How come you don’t look like a scientist?” she asked, with penetrating eyes. Evo thought it unfair to stereotype.
“We’re not all geeks and robots, you know. All kinds of people become scientists. As Nobelist Sir Peter Medawar put it, there are scientists who categorize and classify things. There are artistic types who create new ideas, and technologists who advance science through new methodology. There are those who like to tinker. There are theorists and conceptual scientists, who radically change the focus of study. Some work alone; others prefer teamwork. Some are playful, some serious. There is a broad range of character and style in science.”
The young lady stared at him quizzically, as if it were a foreign language.
Ayden pulled the conversation back his way: “What if we made bacteria faster? Like genetically. Wouldn’t that speed up infection and decay? With the new DNA research tools, maybe we could rev up the process.” Ayden could barely sit still.
Evo paused, reflecting on the recent Kleb epidemic. “Yes, the Kleb that attacked Brookstone was remarkably fast. There’s probably some correlation between speed and virulence.”
The conversation had become a bit esoteric, and Evo feared losing his audience.
“Frankly, Ayden, natural laws are fairly fixed and immutable. Your new molecular tools might hasten the process, but for what purpose? Nature knows best.”
“Then why are there plagues? Are these exceptions to Nature’s rules?” Ayden asked.
“Occasionally we get out of whack with our ecosystem, but we eventually bounce back. A genetic mutation or a weakened immunity can throw the system off balance, but we must rebuild harmony with our microbes.” Evo paused to study his notes.
Katey helped change the topic: “I’m fascinated about the concept of communal living among microbes. Biofilms are complex communities of organisms working together. I wonder if biofilms are the evolutionary link to higher, more complex life forms?”
Rarely was Evo caught off guard. He was not accustomed to having students challenge him this way. Though a bit unsettling, he was grateful they were in his lab working on his technology. It was a career milestone long in coming.
“An excellent homework assignment! Everyone write an essay, due next week, comparing higher life forms with biofilms.”
“Huh? Wha’?” All eyes turned to Burt Nadley, a colossal man, who played football for the varsity team. Snoozing in the back of the room, Nadley stirred to the word “homework”. Most looked away as he wiped the drool from his notebook.
“Pay attention, kids. I want a one-page, type-written essay contrasting advanced life forms with biofilms.”
He had to yell out the last few words, as the bell rang. The students piled out quickly, having had their share of slime for one day. Nadley banged a few chairs, and whispered some profanities as he exited, having no idea what the homework assignment meant. When the smoke cleared, only Evo and his students remained.
Katey was on her way out the door when Evo stopped her. “I think you’ve really hit on something.”
“Yes, I’ve been thinking about it lately,” she replied. “Over billions of years, bacteria have learned to work together. Slime holds them together to support the division of labor. Indeed, diversity in community is the essence of biofilm life, and sets the stage for the development of more complicated life forms.”
“That’s fascinating, Katey.”
“A noble thought, but flawed,” Ayden interjected. “Human cells are fundamentally different from biofilms. It’s not logical to envision a link. Plus, bacteria are often as competitive toward their neighbors as cooperative. Just like us.
“Rather, the essence of biofilms is protection. Each cell is coated with slime to prevent against drought, starvation and predation. Biofilm is the quintessential armor that helped bacteria survive and thrive for eons.”
Katey nodded agreeably. The students were competitive in a friendly way, but appreciated each other’s input. Both also respected the multifunctional nature of biofilms.
“Maybe it’s more complex than that,” Evo offered. “A key function of slime is to anchor microbes so they can eat away at surfaces to obtain food, or hang around for opportunities to infect. It’s all about picking your spots.
“Apparently, biofilms are not so easily defined,” Katey said as she exited.
Ayden wrested Evo from her spell: “It would be way cool to speed up the decay process.” Evo took a second to switch gears.
“Yes, it could be interesting. It could help define the process. Yet I’m a little concerned about where such a project is headed. Bacteria are nasty enough as it is. Let’s talk about this later.”
Meanwhile, in the hallway, Mr. Nadley awaited Ayden. “Hey Poindexter, how ‘bout helping out your buddy Burt?” Ayden looked even smaller and more disabled next to Nadley.
“What’s up, big guy?” Ayden tried not to show fear.
“You’re smart; way smarter than me! I bet you could knock out two reports for Dr. Lucio, Don’t you think?”
“I’m not so sure he would condone…”
“Don’t worry about Teach,” Burt interrupted. “This is between me and you.” Nadley’s message was crystal clear.
“Sure, I can do that,” Ayden assented. “It might be fun to come up with two different ideas on the subject.” He would give the lesser one to Burt. “But only this one time, okay?”
“Yeah sure, Ayroid. Just don’t make me look like a geek.”