Extraterrestrials, or Space Pirates?

A landmark study has illuminated the presence of specific microbes on the ISS strongly suggesting that humans might be on board the spacecraft.  In a routine survey of one air filter and more than one (two) of the vacuum bags used to clean the station, the researchers arrived at unexpected results – the amount and type of microbes found on the ISS are in stark contrast to those found on the meticulously scrubbed and disinfected NASA clean rooms* back on Earth.  Furthermore, these microbes on the ISS seem to resemble those found in association with humans.


NASA Clean room, image from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:327160main_SICDH_FS_img1_lg.jpg
NASA Clean room, image from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:327160main_SICDH_FS_img1_lg.jpg

Experts say that if these microbes came from a human, it is entirely possible that they could live on another human.  A major worry is that the astronauts and cosmonauts expected to continue living and working now on the ISS might be living with bacteria, which have been known to cause disease in the past.  It is therefore now the topmost priority to figure out which pathogens are there and how on (from?) Earth they arrived.


Astronaut Karen Nyberg with fellow Cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and Astronaut Luca Parmitano, image from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Astronaut_Karen_Nyberg_With_Cosmonaut_Fyodor_Yurchikhin_and_Astronaut_Luca_Parmitano.jpg
Astronaut Karen Nyberg with fellow Cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and Astronaut Luca Parmitano, image from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Astronaut_Karen_Nyberg_With_Cosmonaut_Fyodor_Yurchikhin_and_Astronaut_Luca_Parmitano.jpg

Microbial forensic experts are being called in to analyze the unique “fingerprint” signatures of the microbes left behind, in the hope of identifying the suspects these potential pathogens came from.  Preliminary findings have urged officials to focus their search on anyone who has recently eaten space-grown lettuce.  Next steps to understanding what is influencing the microbes on the ISS include analyzing the effect of a human breathing, eating, washing hair, sneezing, farting, playing the guitar or performing any other act as might be expected of these hypothesized ISS inhabitants.  Due to the limited knowledge of the on-goings of the station, the public is being asked for any information they might know of regarding such activities.

*Designed to eliminate the spread and survival of microorganisms.

Secret microbiome forensic study reveals #deflategate culprit

Chicago. January 31, 2015.

I had the incredible luck to be on an assignment in the midwest this week visiting the lab of Jock Giblet, one of the world’s experts in the new and merging superfield of microbiome forensics.  Giblet  has been at the forefront of forward thinking on using foreheads and foreskins and other microbiome rich samples to do forensics.  His lab has already been involved in hundreds of criminal investigations where microbial forensics was used to do important things like (1) show that microbes were on people involved in crimes (2) that analysis of microbes can be used to reveal who was last in a room (making a few assumptions like, you know who was in the room and what their microbes look like and who was not in the room) and (3) the microbes could be considered as possible instigators of various crimes.

Anyway – I was there to interview Giblet about his latest amazing work on the how microbiome analysis can be used to cheat at card games.  But he was distracted by something.  He called me into his spacious yet somehow very dark and depressing office and said “Can I let you in on a secret?”  Of course I said yes.  Alas, for him, he never said “Can this be off the record?” so I am reporting to you what I then found out, along with some secret recordings I made with my awesome Google Glass recording device.

Over the next 24 hours I witness Giblet and members of his microbiome lab then do a top secret microbiome driven analysis of the deflategate controversy.   It was so exciting to be witness to this edge cutting research.  Below is a description of what I witnessed.

1. Giblet and team travel to the airport to collect footballs from the NFL

The footballs lined up waiting to be picked up

2. Giblet brings footballs back to the lab and also collect wan assortment of other materials for control experiments

Aerial of the Top Secret Lab where Dr. Giblet works

3. They then set up a microbiome analysis in their top secret lab with some key samples for testing and as part of the experiment

Another kind of football
A key control – a Patriots softball
Yet another kind of football
A regulation football
A football collected at halftime from the Patriots game
New, sterile examples of the suspected tampering tools

4. It was here that I was able to finally activate the video recording on my Google Glass.  It only worked sporadically but I did get some video of the Giblet lab in action carrying out a microbiome forensic study.  Basically, they used these really complicated secret sampling devices that came hidden in a tube:

Top secret microbiome sampling device

And they used this to collect microbiomes from multiple sources including hands,  the suspected deflation devices (before and after handling), and the balls before and after handling.  Here is what I could get:

After doing some test samples the then got the footballs from the NFL that they had picked up at the airport and sampled them too.  They also spent a lot of time on the phone discussing some sort of sampling of the hands of all employees of the Patriots and the other team.  And while we were sampling the footballs someone showed up in the lab with a bag of more of these special sampling devices labelled with names of various people.

They then took all the special sampling devices and “got the fu#*(#@ DNA out of them, for sure”.  It was exciting to watch.

5. Sequencing

The DNA from the sampling devices was then dripped into a small device that plugged into a laptop computer via a USB port.  It looked a bit like a thumb drive.   Dr. Giblet spent a lot of time looking at the screen, typing some stuff, and crying and cursing.  He then said “Screw these minions.  I am going back to the Illuminati” and he carried a box of samples out the door, cursing, in a strange accent.  I am not sure how he was connected to the Illuminati but nevertheless, he returned eight hours later (I was getting really impatient, and hungry, sitting there waiting for him, still wearing my Google Glasses).  And he looked happier.  And he said “Booyah – we have data”.

He then explained to me how he had taken the DNA out of the microbes in the samples and did some special chemistry and got out a file with information that would help determine what microbes were in each sample.

6. Analysis

Dr. Giblet and two other people who seemed to be employees of his, then sat in front of an old IBM computer doing something.  I am not sure but I think their names were Jane Jane and Sir Robert.  Very interesting people I note.   Anyway, the cursed a lot, typed a lot, kept talking about some sort of chime they kept hearing.  These were smart people I think.  But really secretive and talking in code all the time.  In fact, they kept asking Sir Robert to do more code, though I note, I had no idea what he was saying anyway.

Nevertheless, after 10 more hours they finally woke me up (I had fallen asleep on the lab floor) and said “We have the answer.”  And then they had me sit in front of a computer to look at some pictures.  By this point my Google Glasses were really acting up.  The best pics I  could get are shown below.



Apparently these graphs showed that the culprit behind the NFL DeflateGate controversy was none other than Jock Giblet himself.  That is, the samples from the Patriots’ footballs most resembled samples from Giblet’s hands.  He swore to his friends and colleagues that it was not him and that he would never do something like that.  But as they called 911 they said “Sorry Jock. We will miss you.”

Then they shuffled me out the door too.  They never noticed the Google Glass, but I have been cut off from my sources so not sure what happened to Jock after he was taken away.

Lab tech (level 3ish) in population genetics looking for job in Davis

I have a friend of a friend who has almost 20 years of experience as a technician working in population genetics and forensics.  She has just moved to Davis and is looking for work, she came highly recommended from her previous lab.   If anyone knows of any position she might look at, or anyone to contact please let me know.  I can also send a resume on request.

Mini post: Microbial forensics

A few months old here but there is a very interesting post from the Science Media Centre in New Zealand: Science Media Centre: Microbes in soil could help fight crime.  The post describes attempts to use microbes in soil as part of forensic activities.  This relates in many ways to my call for a “Field Guide to Microbes”.

I have been interested in microbial forensics for many years since I worked at TIGR on part of the project to study anthrax genomes.  For those interested in microbe-related forensic activities I have created a Mendeley collection of references on the topic.