How much is enough? Public knowledge and the microbial world

As a recent University of Saskatchewan (USask) graduate who just completed my animal bioscience degree, I’ve had my eyes opened to so many things that I’d never imagined would interest me.

By Hannah Burlet

Microbiology — specifically bacteriology — is now a subject I consider daily, and when I look to the future, I want to dedicate time to spreading scientific knowledge and emphasizing that science is here to help people.

As a research assistant in the molecular microbiology research lab at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), I assist my supervisor Dr. Matheus Costa on a study investigating swine dysentery.

Swine dysentery is a disease seen in growing pigs that has a significant economic impact and causes animal welfare concerns. Specifically, I’m studying the expression of genes and the proteins involved in the disease mechanism of different species of Brachyspira bacteria.

Whenever someone asks me about my work, I find it difficult to explain why it’s important to study the expression of proteins in the bacteria that cause swine dysentery, so I often just respond by saying, “I’m working at the university.”

Although I don’t expect everyone to talk about molecular microbiology, I’m concerned about the public’s lack of awareness about science. While it’s easy for us to see and understand the organisms that are big enough to see with our eyes, understanding the microscopic organisms surrounding us and in us poses more of a challenge.

Because people can’t see or feel bacteria or viruses, they sometimes reject the idea that these microbes affect our lives or even exist. But these microorganisms live peacefully on and within us, working to provide nutrients from our food and inhibiting our unfriendly invaders.

“We’re kind of like symbiotic organisms … without bacteria to help our respiratory system work, and in our gut with food and energy extraction … without these bacteria, we can’t live,” says Dr. Aaron White, a research scientist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) whose research focuses on pathogenic (disease-causing) Salmonella strains.

People also rely on microbial action for favourite foods and refreshments — products such as yogurt, leavened bread and fermented beverages like beer and wine.

Although microbiology affects us all, it often takes a negative experience to draw attention to it. For example, now that I’ve had a run-in with E. coli infection, I shy away from bagged salads, and I cut up and wash lettuce on my own. I’ve also warned my friends and family to ensure that they don’t experience the same fate.

Once we see the effects of bacteria, viruses or fungi on plant and animal bodies, we become aware that contact with infected items or shifts in body systems can cause diseases and symptoms that range from a runny nose to bouts of diarrhea containing blood and mucus.

Although educational resources are easily available to everyone, we tend to ignore them unless we’re personally invested in knowing more about a specific issue related to microbiology.

“There are kids with different health complications and there are incredibly informed parents with internet blogs where they compile information … it tends to connect people better to science because it’s more on the emotional side of things,” says White.

Although the negative impact of animal health issues is often lost between the barn and the retailer, microbes affect livestock in the same way as they do humans. Scientific studies such as Costa’s research involving swine dysentery are focused on mitigating microbial diseases in animal herds to ensure food security and good animal welfare.

While consumers may notice price fluctuations in their pork chops at the grocery store, they may not consider the underlying causes. Even though thousands of individuals are working to prevent and control diseases in livestock, many people don’t even consider these food production issues until they hear of diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or swine influenza.

As we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, a negative event can prompt the spread of false information that misguides the public and causes speculation. An “infodemic” such as the one we’re seeing plays on the public’s lack of literacy about microbial diseases.

“People have gone around and spent time and money [to develop vaccines] and we still see a lot of vaccine hesitancy,” says Costa, an assistant professor in the WCVM’s Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences. “In a pandemic these actions have a significant impact on public health.”

I encourage everyone to learn more about science, and I hope that a deeper, more widespread education about immunology or even just biology can help to reduce the spread of false statements and mistrust that have characterized this pandemic.

To get started, I have some suggestions for further reading material:

  • the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website provides reputable but easily understood material on issues such as influenza, vaccines and immunizations and food safety.
  • another great website to explore is The Conversation. After reading through some of the articles, I was amazed by how easily I understood information on topics such as technology.
  • if books are more your speed, White recommends The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan or any other books written by reputable science-focused authors. Another book that I’ve read and enjoyed is I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong.

Hannah Burlet of Saskatoon, Sask., was a summer research student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) in 2021. She completed her Bachelor of Science (Animal Bioscience) degree at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) in 2022. Her story is part of a series of articles written by WCVM summer research students.