Category Archives: Science and Society

Microbes in the news: Yersinia pestis (plague)

In the fourteenth century, the Black Death (bubonic plague) spread from China across Europe along trade routes, killing approximately one-third of the population along the way. What’s easy to forget is that the bacterium that caused this massive event is still around – and with it, the plague. This week, we have a sad reminder: the Oregon man recovering from plague who has lost fingers and probably toes to the disease.

Depictions of microbial diseases show up in surprising places – are these plague buboes shown in the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans?

What causes the plague?
Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It normally lives in rodents, and it can be transmitted to other rodents by fleas. People can also be infected if they are bitten by a flea or, more rarely, if they have direct contact with an infected animal. If transmitted via a flea bite, the bacterium travels to the nearest lymph node and replicates, causing a painful, swollen lymph node called a “bubo”. If the bacterium is transmitted directly to the bloodstream, however, disease can occur without bubo formation.

Why is the plague still around?
It’s easy to think of the plague as a thing of the past and, indeed, our improved sanitary conditions mean that few people come into contact with infected rodents (and their fleas) on a regular basis. However, imagine how hard it would be to eradicate an infection from a rodent population world-wide. Impossible? Maybe. At any rate, rodents in several countries, including parts of the US, still carry Y. pestis, and that means we still have a reservoir for the disease.

The good news is that most Y. pestis strains remain sensitive to antibiotics, so the plague is generally a treatable disease. The trick is to catch it early enough, which means that healthcare professionals need to be aware of the risk of plague in their area.

Some resources about the plague:
World Health Organization factsheet
Yersinia pestis genome sequence
Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks, a fictional account of a true story in which a town voluntarily self-quaranteened when the plague hit.


The Artist Behind the Worm

Several people have told me how much they like the logo for my “Athlete’s Foot in Worms?” project. There’s something adorable and captivating about the worm in a shoe and the horrified expression it wears. The image was done by artist Katy Hargrove. My husband met her when they both worked at the game company ArenaNet, and we immediately thought of her when I needed an image for my research project. If you like her work, I encourage you to check out her website. I recently had a chance to communicate with Katy about her work:

When did you start drawing, and how did you become involved in game art?
I’ve been drawing since I was very young, three or so. As I got a bit older I really fell in love with animation and thought for the longest time I’d get into that. My interest in games came later from Earthworm Jim. It was a game that connected high quality 2D animation and a bizarre sense of humor to videogames that I hadn’t thought about before. I got very very excited about making video games after that!

What are some of your favorite things to draw?
I’ve always been big into zoology and mythology. I really enjoy drawing animals and then combining them into new things by blending structures together. There is endless fun taking abstract shapes and applying real anatomy to it. Dragons always end up being a favorite because they are so versatile and can have very elaborate, quickly changing textures.

What do you find the most challenging to draw?
I tend to not enjoy drawing buildings very much. It’s not that they are more difficult than other things, as I simply have a hard time finding the energy in a structure. I like twisting deliberate motions, which animals have lots of, and picking up on that motion helps me draw with fun energy. Buildings are much more subtle creations than animals.

Have you ever been involved in crowdfunding before?
No, though I really love the idea. Seems like a great opportunity to drum up funds for important projects that might go without otherwise.

What are some of the similarities that you see between art and science?
Art incorporates a lot of science into it. I think a good artist has a taste for understanding how things work. The way that light functions, how chemicals react, psychology, math, really anything physical and emotional in the world are important to understand. The deeper this understanding, the more armed an artist is to make a work that other people can respond to emotionally. You can’t do that very well without knowing how the properties you are trying to replicate function.

You can find Katy selling sketchbooks and prints at conventions like Sakuracon and Emerald City Comicon, or you can visit her virtually at her website: