Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Refocusing the Microscope

I grew up staring out at the stars through my parents’ antique telescopes; marvelling at the tiny pinpricks of twinkling light and how, on a clear night, the Milky Way streaked across the sky. There are more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy, and more than 1,000 billion galaxies in the universe. How many of them, I used to ask myself, contained planets that were home to life like our own sphere of rock and ocean? It was always the potential for life that fascinated me, be it aliens with copper in their blood and sulphurous breath, or plants with red leaves and a taste for nickel. It felt like us humans were just a small part of something infinite in its vastness and, when I thought about it too hard, I became a lone comet tumbling through 46 billion light years of unknowable space.

When I grew tired of feeling small, I played with my parents’ brass microscopes, with their chipped lenses and seized knobs. At first it was leaves and hair and globules of pond water dripped directly onto the mirrors. I never saw very much but the hidden microscopic world fascinated me as much as looking out at the stars. I must have been about ten when the concept of bacteria first took hold of me. I think it was via a book mentioning Anton Van Leeuwenhoek who, back in the 17th century, had fashioned himself a homemade microscope to look at what he described as ‘wee animalcules’ and ‘cavorting beasties’ in fresh water. Of his animalcules, Leeuwenhoek said ‘ten thousand of these living creatures could scarce equal the bulk of a coarse sand grain.’ My view of the universe we live in stretched a little further, much like it had the moment when I’d realised the stars could all be someone else’s sun.

I grew up to become a microbiologist and not an astronomer. From a distance, both fields looked similar to me. Both saw the universe through lenses and mirrors, only one was looking up and the other down. I wanted to see the smallest living creatures in the world because, if we don’t even understand the extremes of life on our own planet, how can we hope to comprehend the breadth of life to be found throughout the rest of existence. The microbial universe was as beautiful as the night sky, with the way Bacillus subtilis formed fractal-like patterns across an agar plate or the rainbow hues of cyanobacteria radiating from the edges of the Yellowstone hot springs. Even the pathogenic species could be wondrous in the way that, wherever you look, life has found a way and a home.

I didn’t intend to work on a pathogenic species at first, but the days of Leeuwenhoek observing his animalcules are long gone. Microbiology, on the whole, is all about using our knowledge of microbes to better humankind—by finding a cure for tuberculosis, in the case of my own research. I envy astrobiologists their timeline, in a way. How they are still explorers who, one day, may be the first to see alien cavorting beasties in a droplet of water from Neptune or the traces of past life in a sample of silica from Mars. But I suppose any field can lose its shine when you zoom in to focus on the minutiae. That’s what happened for me, at least.

From the world’s biggest infectious disease killer, to a yellowy suspension of cells shaking in an incubator, to a fingerprint of proteins making dark bands on a Western blot. Somewhere in my ten-plus years in the lab, the beauty of the microbial world got lost among diagrams of signalling pathways and overly simplified models to distill the behaviour of bacteria down into something predictable. Does it remove some of the wonder of the solar system to understand the physics that hold our planets in orbit around the sun? Only if you spend so much time hunched over your mathematical formulae that you forget to look up at the sky from time to time.

So I left. There were other factors involved in my decision, of course. The birth of my daughter, for one, which re-centred my view of the universe around this one, impossibly bright point of light. But mostly it was that I’d spent too long looking down that microscope and had lost sight of everything else. The day after I handed in my resignation, a publisher at Bloomsbury messaged me to ask if I’d ever thought of writing a popular science book. Two years later, Catching Breath - The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis is on its way to publication. I started out intending to shine a light on how Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium behind the disease, is the cleverest of them all. Only, the gravitational pull of my own cavorting beastie kept changing my focus. It’s no longer M. tuberculosis that fascinates me, but the place it occupies in the world.

I used to think of the microbial universe as something separate from us, to be observed from a distance. Only, microbes—the ones on our skin, in our guts, floating around in our drinking water, or causing infections such as TB—make up the fabric of our lives. We exist in a vast, interconnected world in which no one species lives its life in isolation. There’s no good guys and bad guys here, not really; just a huge tapestry of life that isn’t always sewn in humankind’s favour. Catching Breath isn’t a zoomed in review of the scientific research into M. tuberculosis. I’ve taken a step away from my own work and tried to tell a story of how TB fits into the rest of the world and, in doing so, I’ve remembered why I got into research in the first place.

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