Mail harmless bacteria, go to jail

Being a microbiologist can be a dangerous business. Some of us work out in the field, exposed to weather, animals, and pathogens of all different forms. Some do research in countries with unstable governments, collecting samples and tracking down infected individuals in the midst of strife, poverty, and warfare. Some remain in the lab, but share it with agents that can be handled only under high levels of containment, and may need special labs and permits just to do their research. We all realize our job contains some level of risk, and do what we can to minimize that.

However, as much as we try to protect ourselves against biological dangers, we can’t wall ourselves off from every form of risk, especially if it comes at us from unexpected places–like those who are supposed to keep the public safe. Since 9/11, the government has invested a huge amount of resources into research on pathogens that have the potential to be biological weapons (at the expense of basic research into other, more “mundane” pathogens), and scrutiny of all things microbiological has increased dramatically. This has caused scientists to get caught in the crosshairs, such as Thomas Butler, a microbiologist at Texas Tech who worked on Yersinia pestis (the bacterium that causes bubonic plague) among other organisms.

After initially being investigated for charges including bioterrorism (later dropped) following his report of missing bacterial vials, he was sentenced to 2 years in prison for a collection of other charges unrelated the original incident, producing a chilling effect upon the microbiology community: no one is safe from prosecution, and even a simple mistake can land you behind bars, stripped of your job and defending yourself with your retirement savings.

This isn’t the only case like this, either. Just last week, a University of Pittsburgh geneticist, Robert Ferrell, plead guilty to charges of failing to follow proper procedures in mailing samples, after being investigated initially for charges related to bioterrorism that were dropped (similar to the Butler case), and another professor awaits trial; more after the jump.
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More nasty flies

If you thought botflies were bad, check out Bug Girl’s post on tumbu flies.

The adult flies lay their eggs on wet laundry hanging out to dry, or in the soil or sand. Within two days, larvae hatch, and can remain alive for up to two weeks. During that time, if they come into contact with skin, they burrow in.

Oh, don’t worry, there’s more…check out the link to see how vaseline and ironing your underwear come into play.

HIV denial: international flavor

Just a quick post to note that fellow ScienceBlogger Nick Anthis has up a post on HIV denial in South Africa. Though this is a topic I’ve touched on, he goes into a deeper history of it, including more about the cultural reasons for denial (whereas I typically focus more on the science).

In other news, I have an editorial today in the The Times Higher Education Supplement in London. You can find it here (registration required).

YearlyKos videos are up!

I’ve not mentioned this yet because I hadn’t had a chance to see it myself, but C-SPAN did broadcast this year’s YearlyKos Science Panel. You can see Chris’s talk on hurricanes and global warming here; Ed’s talk on fighting creationism by running for school board here, and Sean’s talk on dark energy and dark matter over yonder. I have the videos of the final parts–the Q&A session–after the jump.
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HIV denial update #1: shake-up in South Africa

There have been some interesting updates in the field of HIV politics and denial recently. First, after having several months of moving forward with a real plan to combat AIDS in South Africa, the deputy minister of health, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, has been fired. For those who follow this area, Madlala-Routledge stepped into the limelight when she took over for her boss, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, while she had surgery. Tshabalala-Msimang, you may recall, is the one who sided with President Thabo Mbeki regarding causes of AIDS (and cures for it), advocating treatments such as a recipe of garlic, beetroot, lemon and African potatoes to combat AIDS while underplaying the role of anti-retroviral drugs. Madlala-Routledge had been working to swing things the other way, and it seems this is a part of what got her fired; more after the jump.
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Tripoli Six–home and free

After 8 1/2 years of imprisonment, torture in jail, and a death sentence hanging over their heads, the Tripoli Six (collected links) are back home, and have been granted pardons from the Bulgarian president.

Revere, again, has the details; more at the BBC and New York Times. Many kudos go out to both Revere and Nature reporter Declan Butler for spreading this story out through the blogosphere, and sighs of relief out to the workers themselves and their families and loved ones.

Image from

Tripoli Six–moving toward resolution

The strange and tragic case of the Tripoli Six, a group of 5 Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor working in Tripoli, Libya, is finally drawing to a close. The six health workers had been found guilty of infecting up to 400 children in the hospital where they worked with HIV, and had previously been sentenced to death–even though the science had shown that the epidemic began prior to the arrival of the workers. This saga has been dragging on for the better part of a decade (Declan Butler at Nature has a very nice story here discussing the various twists and turns along the way), but now, as Revere reports (continued below):
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Be a scientific consultant for the Clergy Letter Project!

By now, regular readers will probably be familiar with The Clergy Letter Project spearheaded by Michael Zimmerman. Formulated in part to respond to the framing of the evolution controversy as a battle between science and religion, the letter now boasts more than 10,700 signatures from clergy, and have sponsored Evolution Sunday events for the past 2 years.

Well, Zimmerman has a new project now:

Our latest initiative is to create a list of scientists around the world who are willing to answer scientific questions posed by clergy who are supportive of modern science in general and evolution in particular ( In just a bit over three weeks, we already have over 200 scientists signed up to help out. I hasten to add that the information these scientists will be providing will be solely of a scientific nature and thus their personal religious inclinations are absolutely irrelevant.

In addition to creating a useful resource for clergy, I am hoping for the list to make a major political statement: religious leaders and scientists can work together – despite what religious fundamentalists claim. I also would very much like to have more names on this list than the number of scientists the Discovery Institute has on a list it trumpets of scientists claiming to “question” evolution.

If you’re interested, drop an email to Michael ( and include your name, title, address, area(s) of expertise, and email address–and spread the word!