Thursday, August 14, 2008

Gerbils and coffee

If you are reading this (someone is, right?) then you've probably noticed I try to post daily. Sometimes I have something in mind for the post, something I've found while preparing the lecture or something I didn't have time to mention. Sometimes I won't have anything particular in mind so I take a look at some websites to see what disease related stories I might have missed lately that are nice and topical. A good source for science stories, of all types, is Science Daily. They nearly always have some great articles and, conveniently, you can select stories by topic. For example here are their current Infectious Disease stories. Here's an item I missed a couple of weeks back. It has both gerbils and coffee - what's not to like? (I particularly like the way that although the coffee link is really rather tenuous the computer generated 'Related Stories' suggests a whole bunch of coffee related stories).

By moving through the coffee via the empty spaces between the ground coffee particles, the water picks up the flavour of the coffee. Stephen Davis and colleagues at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University, report in Nature their discovery that the spread of the bubonic plague bacteria in Central Asia by gerbils, works much the same way.

Plague bacteria percolate through the landscape transmitted by fleas from one great gerbil family to the next, from burrow system to burrow system. It’s the first time percolation theory is used to accurately describe the natural dynamics of an infectious disease. The discovery might be helpful to understand how outbreaks of disease occur in other populations. It may, for example, shed new light on spread of bovine tuberculosis in badgers, and spread of viral diseases in populations of African lions.

The only thing that bugs me about Science Daily is that they don't seem to provide direct citations to the source articles - just a couple of hints like the authors name and journal. It usually isn't hard to track down but I don't know why they don't give the full citation. Here's a link to the original paper - The abundance threshold for plague as a critical percolation phenomenon. It has a lot fewer references to coffee but it does have a very cool satellite photograph of gerbil burrows.

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