Writing for the internet

I write about the environment, biotech, and life in science for online outlets such as Massive Science and Chemistry World. Find links to my articles below. The images shown here are derived from the articles themselves, so follow the links to the articles to see full accreditation for each pic.

Bacterial biocontrol for beehives.

The bee microbiome can fight back against fungi that cause Colony Collapse Disorder. Biocontrol may help bees where other interventions, like chemical pesticides, have failed. Article for Massive Science. Published March 2020. This piece was republished by ASBMB (The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) in March 2020 as The bee microbiome can fight back against fungi that cause Colony Collapse Disorder.

Honeybees are threatened by a load of nasty fungal infections that in some cases contribute to the mysterious but devastating collapse of entire colonies. Human agricultural practices don’t help, and in fact often encourage the introduction of pathogens, and the depletion of diverse microbial communities that can prevent infection in the first place. Research from the US has shown that one particular species of bacterium can prevent the growth of two important fungal pathogens, and in this article I discuss what this means for how we can protect hives, without resorting to the usual heavy chemical pesticides – which cause a lot of problems of their own.

Microplastics in the ocean provide platforms for artifical microbial reefs.

Unlike bacteria, diatoms are picky about microplastics. Different types of plastic waste appear to attract the same types of bacteria, but not the same types of diatoms. Lab Note for Massive Science. Published January 2020.

Like probably every other solid surface on Earth, we now know that microplastic particles in the ocean are colonised with microbes like bacteria. This phenomenon might change for example how pathogenic species move around the world, and this study suggested it might influence the likelihood that a particular piece of plastic is degraded.

The stinky influence of the cat microbiome on feline behaviours.

Cats communicate with the help of bacteria living in their butts. KittyBiome researchers want to study the cat microbiome to improve health and understand scent-based communication. Article for Massive Science. Published December 2019.

The study I write about here was funded by KickStarter, and has been helped along by the power of Citizen Science – cat owners around America are sending samples of kitty poop and other feline secretions to researchers at UC Davis, leading to some weird and fascinating research. This particular investigation showed that the scent that a Bengal cat sprays when marking territory is at least partly produced by bacteria living next to the cat’s butthole. I love this story! The scent a cat makes influences the behaviour of all the cats around it – so we can only begin to guess at the social impact of the precise bacterial species each individual cat is hosting!!

On trying to create an equitable lab where everyone does their fair share.

A fair share. How the Swedish principle of collective responsibility keeps science running smoothly. Opinion piece for the Last Retort pages of Chemistry World. (You might need to create an account at the Chemistry World web-page to read this, but you can access a certain number of articles for free each month.) Published November 2019.

While obviously no lab is ever perfect – and the more lab members you have sharing a space, the more likely there will be conflicts – I am really proud of the way we run the Glycoscience lab at KTH. I wrote this letter to Chemistry World to show off a bit about how committed we are to making sure everyone does their fair share. Everyone is expected to take responsibility for some part of the lab, and this means that we all contribute to each other’s research in some way, helping us to feel like a real community. As I say, this doesn’t mean everything is always perfect, but I truly am proud of the ways that we try to create an equitable working environment.

I hope this short article will inspire some people to try new ways of taking care of their labs. At the very least, enjoy the fun illustration of us on our lab cleaning day! See if you can spot me there!!

The complex legacy of Maria Sibylla Merian – independent woman, ecologist, Christian, scientist, artist, slave-owner.

Meet Maria Sibylla Merian, the naturalist who painted insects in living color. One of the first to recognize insect metamorphosis, she’s finally getting her dues after 300 years of obscurity. Article for Massive Science, in their Science Heroes series, which aims to bring recognition to forgotten or under-appreciated historical Women In STEM. Published November 2019.

I was thrilled to be able to contribute to the Science Heroes series, and I learned a lot about a woman I formerly knew nothing about. In my article I discuss the life and work of Merian, and why she was forgotten for such a long time, despite being the first person to depict insect metamorphosis in any detail. She seems to have been a brave woman in many ways, striking out on her own for field expeditions, and financially supporting her own family. She was also brave by depicting the ‘cruelty’ inherent in nature, that is in fact necessary for species to be able to become strong – many in the 17th century thought that this was an un-Christian stance. Merian’s work was often dismissed and her contributions to the field of ecology were derided for patently sexist reasons, as I discuss in my article.

I highly recommend that you also read the article Breeding Insects and Reproducing White Supremacy in Maria Sibylla Merian’s Ecology of Dispossession, written by Elizabeth Polcha for Lady Science: find it at this link. Elizabeth goes into a lot more detail than I could about the more problematic and disturbing aspects of Merian’s life and legacy. For her grand expedition to Suriname, she travelled with slave-owners, and took Indigenous and African slaves of her own. She often used the stories of enslaved people in her writing, in particular the stories of enslaved women. I cannot recommend Elizabeth’s article strongly enough, as it puts Merian’s story into important context.

The first genetically modified probiotic is on the market, and it wants to help you party.

Start-up releases the world’s first GMO probiotic. The company claims the probiotic supplement can cure hangovers, but evidence in humans is lacking. Lab Note for Massive Science. Published September 2019.

The low-key intentions for this product might actually help to convince people that GM food is no big deal. That is my hope at least. And ideally this first product will bring the young company some revenue so they can work on loftier goals in future. I admire their courage in launching so quickly.

Common contaminants in lab reagents lead to the faulty discovery of a placental microbiota.

The placental microbiome may not exist, but the scientific method is realResearchers from Cambridge have found that run-of-the-mill sample contamination likely led to the discovery of a placental microbiome. Lab Note for Massive Science. Published August 2019.

Earlier this year, I was teaching a course called Advanced Microbiology & Metagenomics at KTH. I talked to students about the recent discovery of a placental microbiome (and also one in the brain stem) and I warned students to be highly sceptical until several other groups had observed the same. Now I know that my hunch was right – the placenta does seem to be sterile after all. A warning to all microbiologists working with low biomass or low DNA samples – contamination is an enormous problem!

A graphic designer offers a radical new template for conference posters – but are we ready for it?

The #BetterPoster debate rages – should you redesign your presentations? Biologist Lauren McKee chooses to reserve judgement – for now. Lab Note for Massive Science. Published July 2019.

I trialled the Better Poster design at a recent meeting of cell wall scientists in Stockholm. I got some nice comments on the layout and definitely had a lot of interactions with people, so maybe it works?

A simple new enzyme technology could drastically increase supplies of type O blood.

Bacteria from our guts have the tools to solve blood bank shortagesThe discovery of a new enzyme system that can convert type A blood into type O blood could ease strain on universal donors and transform healthcare. Article for Massive Science. Published July 2019. This piece was republished by Salon.com in July 2019 as New study finds that bacteria from our guts have the tools to solve blood bank shortagesThe discovery of a new enzyme system could ease strain on universal donors and transform healthcare.

The idea behind this paper – using one or two enzymes to transform A/B type blood into universal donor type O blood – is quite an old idea, as I discuss in this long-form article. However, previous attempts at developing the technology were extremely inefficient compared to the new enzymes described here. They were discovered thanks to metagenomic sequencing of human gut bacteria. This is a powerful technique that lets us simultaneously sequence the DNA from millions of bacterial cells.

A Green New Deal should overhaul agriculture for good with innovative biological solutions.

Reducing agricultural carbon emissions will be good for the planet and our stomachsFrom soil microbes to factory farming, the Green New Deal could radically improve our food system. Article for Massive Science. Published April 2019. This piece was republished by Salon.com in April 2019 as Reducing agricultural carbon emissions will be good for the planet and our stomachsFrom soil microbes to factory farming, the Green New Deal could radically improve our food system.

Carbon emissions from agriculture tend to be overlooked as we discuss industry and transport, but they are key to ensuring a truly sustainable future. The challenges ahead will be hard – we need to reduce energy consumption, massively cut back the use of pesticides and fertilisers, and find ways of growing more crops on less land. All of this while the population continues to grow, and we realise the importance for human health of a varied diet. It won’t be easy, and sweeping policy changes like those proposed by the Green New Deal will be necessary. We just need to make sure those policies are supported by science. In this long-form article I discuss some ways that we can make sure the soil stays fertile and our crop plants stay disease-free without putting too many synthetic chemicals on our fields.

Legendary environmentalist Rachel Carson promoted the use of biological pesticides in 1962.

Rachel Carson foresaw using bacteria to protect crops from fungus. Lab Note for Massive Science. Published April 2019.

Biological pesticides are a focus of much current research – including some of my own – so I was thrilled to see that Rachel promoted their use at the end of her seminal book Silent Spring. Check out Massive Science’s short biography of Rachel to learn more about this incredible woman.

As technology develops, holidays in space come closer to reality – at least for the megarich.

Paving the way for interstellar holidays. By Lauren McKee and Matthew Hartfield. Opinion piece for Edinburgh University Science (EUSci) magazine focus issue: Legends of the Void. Published online January 2011.