Friday Weird Science: IgNobels Post 1. The Bacterial Beard

Oct 08 2010 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

So I heard recently the IgNobels were announced!!! I <3 the IgNobels. Someday, Sci would like to be JUST famous enough to live blog the IgNobel ceremony and cover all the winners. SO FUN. But until that day, Sci will have to cover them from afar! And to that end, I thought it'd be fun to take a few Friday Weird Science posts and make them about the IgNobel prizes, with my particular favorites, and of course all the weird science behind them. You can see the full list of this year's winners here.

The only hard part was...which one to cover FIRST! They are all SO GOOD. But Sci had a clear fav. I love funny beards.
(This is my personal favorite. I'd love to think there's a guy around with a beard like that who looks that dapper ALL the time. He's SO DAPPER!!)

But you know, I do worry about these soupcatchers. After all, if they are SOUPcatchers...what other things do they CATCH!?

Apparently, quite a bit. Barbeito, Mathews, and Taylor. "Microbiological Laboratory Hazard of Bearded Men" Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 1967.

So apparently, before 1967, people didn't wear beards in the laboratory. Or at least it wasn't in vogue. So sayth the article, but I have to wonder about that. Perhaps they had a low point in the 50s or something, but beards among professors in general and scientific professors in particular have always been somewhat popular.

But it's one thing wearing a beard and working with bears and beetles and bottlenose dolphins, it's another to work with BACTERIA. Bacteria not only are too small to see, they can get everywhere. Including in the air. And onto your clothes. And on your...beard.

So the question was: how MUCH bad bacteria does your beard transmit? What about the effects of washing?

To test this, they took some dudes, and had them grow beards for 73 days. They then took their beards and sprayed them delicately with a fine mist filled with bacteria (they used Serratia marcescens and Bacillus subtilis var. niger, which are bacteria which cause UTIs and ones found in soil, respectively). They then waited 30 minutes (in the case of either a "oh crap I just got bacteria in my beard but I MUST DO ALL THE SCIENCE" kind of scenario or a "oh crap I just got bacteria in my beard, MUST WASH"), or 6 hours with no bath, the situation of "oh, there's bacteria in my beard? Oh well! Home to the wife and kids!". Then everyone either took a shower, washed their beard, and dried with a towel, or didn't wash. They used four methods of sampling for B. subtilis, which are each, in their way, hilarious.

1) Beard Swabbing: each beard was swabbed with a moist applicator, and that was then swiped on an agar plate.
2) Beard Stroking: stroking the beard with a filter paper for two minutes, the filter paper was then plated on agar.
3) Beard Printing: Each beard was carefully imprinted on an agar plate.
4) Beard Rinsing: with saline, into a dish, which was then used to coat an agar plate.

The did an extra set of beards with S. marcescens contamination, and those were carefully combined with an aluminum comb with cotton between the tines to absorb bacteria. THAT got then put in a blender, and then plated.

Doesn't this experiment sound fun? I would SO do this!!!

For the final step, all beards got shaved, and samples were taken of the four "bearded zones", the right temple, right chin, left temple, and left chin. I have to wonder why they divided the chin up (dividing up the sideburns makes sense, but the chin?), but oh well. And they took the hair, and BLENDED IT!!

But now we get to the best part of the methods: beard washing. It turns out that there are two different ways to wash one's beard.

Example 1:

The splashing wash. Note the intense look on the guy's face. I figure this has to be either "must delicately wash my beard" face or "hmmm...I think the new direction of my research will be..." face. I like option two.

Example 2

This is the direct method known as "shower stream wash". That's either a look of total zen, or something like "AAAAAAAAHHHH!!! MUST WASH BEARD!!! INTENSE WASH!!!"

Of course, they had to have controls, so they had dudes WITHOUT beards get sprayed with the same bacteria, and then had them wash and sample (ok, they didn't comb a dude's bare face with an aluminum comb, at least).

But the best experiment is yet to come! They did a VIRUS experiment for viral contamination. Using a mannequin. With a beard. And chickens.
(See? I wasn't kidding)

They used a virus, NDV, that only infects chickens, and put the either washed or unwashed (for the washing, they took the beard off the mannequin and washed it separately) bearded head in a hood. And then...they held the chickens, and SNUGGLED them against the beard.

Each of three 6-week-old chickens was held with its
head alternately nestled in the beard and stroked
across one-third of the beard (one chicken on each
side and one on the chin) for 5 min (Fig. 3).

I can only imagine how mind bogglingly both odd (a mannequin?) and CUTE (!) this must have been.

And then they waited to see if the chicks got the virus. They also checked for inhalant possibilities of bacteria in beards by using botulinium toxin on the beard, and having a guinea pig sniff it.

So what did they GET?!

Well, for the men with the beards (not the mannequin), they got some pretty good bacteria off it. In particular, the best bacteria were from the beards that had been shaved off afterward, which they considered a better measure as the "other methods of sampling underestimated the potential infectious dose that a family member might obtain by intimate contact with the unwashed beards." Intimate contact with unwashed beards, you say? Heh.

But beards DID harbor more bacteria in general, the clean shaven men ALWAYS had less bacteria recovered from their faces than the bearded men, suggesting that "that bacteria hold more tenaciously to the beard than to the face." Tenacious, those bacteria.

Washing the beards HELPED, but there was still more bacteria recovered than from a shaved face.

On to the mannequin. Of the chickens that were rubbed against it (they had to do it twice as they had trouble with virus recovery), 4/9 got infected with the virus. For the guinea pigs, 1/15 died within 10 days of beard exposure (though I note they didn't have them sniff an infected shaved chin, what about our shaved guinea pig owners?!).

Conclusions? You're probably safer if you're not bearded (or if you keep your beard well covered), but the results they got were still relatively low. Still, you might want to wash your beard (and your face) before you head home if you work with bacteria. And maybe one of these:

Is best kept out of the lab. Maybe you can wait to grow that one til you get tenure. 🙂

Barbeito MS, Mathews CT, & Taylor LA (1967). Microbiological laboratory hazard of bearded men. Applied microbiology, 15 (4), 899-906 PMID: 4963447

15 responses so far

  • becca says:

    Damn. I wish they'd done the experiment with long hair. My thesis committee made me get mine cut, because my cell culture was being strange and they thought it must be getting contaminated.

  • Jim says:

    I'm bearded, and work with clinical multiply resistant Staph strains. Go me!

    ...I see it as an aphrodisiac 😉

  • daedalus2u says:

    This actually relates to my research with commensal ammonia oxidizing bacteria.

    I have found that a biofilm of autotrophic ammonia oxidizing bacteria suppresses heterotrophic bacteria, and that this is a generic mechanism for organisms living in “the wild” to suppress surface infections. Cleaning one's beard is quite non-physiologic. In the wild, humans never bathed. They developed a biofilm of ammonia oxidizing bacteria, which lived on the ammonia and urea released via sweating and the NO and nitrite they produces suppressed infection with heterotrophic bacteria.

    Active suppression of potentially pathogenic bacteria with a self-renewing biofilm of commensals is a much better protective strategy than periodically killing everything and allowing the most abundant and prolific weed-type bacterial organisms to randomly recolonize such an important surface.

    Hair growth is stimulated by increased androgens (as in hyperandrogenic infertility in women with PCOS for example), androgen synthesis is inhibited by NO (NO binds to the rate limiting enzyme and inhibits it), so low NO/NOx increases androgen levels and increases the niche where the bacteria I am working with live, increasing the NO/NOx they produce, reducing androgen synthesis.

    However, if your microbiological technique is so bad that wearing a beard makes a difference, you should find another line of work.

  • Dr Becca says:

    I'm just glad they waited until those chicks were 6 weeks old--can you imagine the psychological damage if they'd imprinted on a bearded mannequin?

  • Joanne says:

    Haha! I loved this research. I checked into it when I was putting together a Powerpoint series for students called "Eponymously Yours" about famous histologists. Famous being relative. So many beards.

  • As awesome as this is (and it really, really is), based on the title of this post I was a wee bit disappointed not to see a bacterial equivalent of a beard of bees.

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