The war on bacteria

Changing the way doctors prescribe antibiotics could make a big difference in the ongoing fight against antimicrobial resistance. In “Low-tech bacteria battle” (SN: 10/4/14, p. 22), Nathan Seppa outlined some of the simple steps physicians are taking to improve their antimicrobial stewardship.

“It just so happens that I was sitting in my elderly mother’s hospital room when I read your article and identified, one day before her doctors, that she had a Clostridium difficile infection,” wrote Karen Attaway in an e-mail. “I pointed out to her nurse that her symptoms were exactly the same as those listed in Science News. I also had to ask the nurse if the hospital was giving their patients the quadrivalent or trivalent flu shot,” she added (see “High-dose flu shot benefits elderly” SN: 10/4/14, p. 15). “Perhaps Science News needs to be marketed to more physicians and nurses as well as hospital waiting rooms!”

Many readers pointed out that the biggest antibiotic users aren’t human: About 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States are used in agriculture and aquaculture. “I was disappointed that there was no mention of the ongoing dangers of antibiotics in our food sources,” wrote Jacob R. Raitt. “Should this not be strongly emphasized?”

Seppa acknowledges that overuse of antibiotics in agriculture is a huge problem — one that Science News has explored in the past (SN Online: 3/23/12; SN: 1/1/05, p. 5). Interested readers can follow SN’s coverage on other aspects of the multifaceted resistance problem, such as antimicrobials finding their way into wastewater (SN: 7/26/14, p. 9) and antibiotic failure in patients (SN: 3/24/12, p. 10), and learn how antibiotics work on the molecular level (SN: 5/3/14, p. 18). The recent feature focused on the rise of antimicrobial stewardship to address one key problem: overprescribing.

Forecast fallout

Around 640,000 years ago, the volcano beneath Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming belched enough ash into the atmosphere to coat North America. A new simulation details the debris dumping the continent would receive from a similar eruption today, as Thomas Sumner reported in “Forecast: Cloudy, 100% chance of ash” (SN: 10/4/14, p. 32).

In the article, Sumner mentioned that geologists don’t think it’s likely that Yellowstone’s volcano will blow its top again. Lots of readers wanted to know how the researchers arrived at that conclusion. “I’d like to talk with the geologists who say no more eruptions,” commented reader ricwerme. “No more supervolcano-size eruptions is plausible, as Yellowstone moves off the hot spot. That’s just as plausible as a new supervolcano forming next door to Yellowstone.”

The magma that fuels Yellowstone today is unlike the molten rock that blasted open the Yellowstone Caldera 640,000 years ago, says Sumner. “Studies indicate that the magma is now denser and that the surrounding crust is turning into basalt, which requires lots of energy to melt. While a smaller-scale lava outpouring is much more likely than another supervolcanic blast, the plumbing beneath Yellowstone couldn’t even manage that right now. Unless things change, Yellowstone is unlikely to erupt anytime soon, if ever.”

Stitches and science

The Feedback page sidebar “Science-inspired sewing” (SN: 10/4/14, p. 30) showcased a Science News-based quilt design submitted by a reader who transformed a graph of the microbial communities found on shoes and smartphones into textile art.

Rosemary Dunn Moeller wrote in to say how much she appreciates art inspired by SN stories, including the cross-stitched diagram of twin primes featured on another Feedback page (SN: 1/11/14, p. 30). “I love fiber arts and have used quilts, Celtic calligraphy, knitting, string games and magic to teach math to children for years. I enjoy seeing your photos from other science lovers/fiber artists.”

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