What I learnt this week part 2 (Guest blog by Elinor Bridges)

Elinor BridgesHello again everyone. I hope it’s been a good week, and not too stressful for those with deadlines. For me, it’s been another week of exploring the weird and wonderful world of living things, a few of which shall feature in this blog. Once again, I have whittled down everything I have learnt this week to the most interesting (and sometimes amusing) nuggets of information.

Life isn’t Fir
I am currently taking part in a community project which involves volunteering at the university’s experimental gardens – also known as ‘The Firs’. This was going swimmingly, despite constantly looking over my shoulder for frogs, which I have an irrational and uncontrollable fear of. Then, as I had dreaded, a green blur in corner of my eye alerted me to the presence of one of the little croakFrog for blogers. While mildly traumatised by the event, I was unharmed. Unfortunately, many people do not face the same fortunate fate upon encountering amphibians – some frogs contain toxins that can be very dangerous.

As explained as part of the Drugs: from Molecules to Man module I am taking, the molecule responsible for making some amphibians best avoided is epibatidine. Epibatidine binds to a certain type of receptor in the nervous system, called the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, and prevents proper control of parts of the nervous system. Additionally, it stops pain sensation from being felt, so the molecule can act as a painkiller. Due to this, epibatidine is a starting point for the development of some painkilling drugs.

Gut flora is for life, not just for Christmas
I have always had mixed feelings about being born the day after Boxing Day. It’s a nice uplift when everyone is miserable about Christmas being over, but it also means everybody is busy and any restaurant I should visit may not have had stock deliveries, leaving half of the menu temporarily defunct. Despite this, it’s my birthday and I’m stuck with it, just like the gut flora that was also bestowed on me at birth.

E. ColiAs was explained to me in Microbes, Man and the Environment, everybody has around a kilogram of bacteria living inside their body. A lot of this bacteria survive in the GI tract, and this is known as the gut flora. Your gut flora is determined by several factors and, surprisingly, is unique to each individual. The first factor that determines the types of bacteria in your gut flora is one of the first things humans ever experience: birth. How you were born affects your gut flora for the rest of your life. For example, if you were born by caesarean section, the first bacteria you were exposed to would have been very different to that of a natural birth. Your gut flora also depends on your diet – vegetarians generally have very different bacteria to those who eat meat. The interesting thing about this is that it’s very difficult to change your gut flora. If you go from eating meat to being a vegetarian, it can take as long as a year for any change in your gut flora to occur.

The fact that your gut flora can’t be changed can be somewhat unfortunate. The bacteria help you to digest the food you eat into products for absorption, and some people’s gut flora are better at this than others. Having gut flora which break down more carbohydrates can be a big factor in weight gain. The result of this? Don’t just blame a few extra pounds on the burgers – it might be because of your bacteria!

 

So, there are the two most interesting things I have learnt this week. I am delighted to find that I have a good reason to be scared of frogs, even if I am more concerned about their slimy skin, unpredictable hopping, and beady little eyes. I hope you found the story of your gut flora interesting – I find it rather comforting to know that you’re carrying a kilogram of tiny little friends with you that will never change. I look forward to seeing you next time, where biological anecdotes and rather awful puns shall continue to abound.