Episode Summary

Stanley Maloy discusses his career in Salmonella research, which started with developing molecular tools and is now focused on the role of Salmonella genome plasticity in niche development. He further talks about his role in science entrepreneurship, science education, and working with an international research community.

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Julie’s Biggest Takeaways

Stanley’s career began when transposon mutagenesis was a new, cutting-edge technique, and he found the best way to learn how to apply a new method was to jump in and try it.

Antibiotic resistance has been a problem throughout Stanley’s career. The future may hold new antimicrobials that aren’t necessarily categorized as classical ‘antibiotics,’ but may offer precision therapy against specific infectious agents. Whatever the future holds, it won’t be a single answer: Stanley sees many innovations necessary to deal with the future of antibiotic-resistant infections.

Stanley’s current research is in Salmonella genome plasticity and how genomic traits influence the bacterial niche. Where do traits like exotoxins or antibiotic resistance exist in the environment, and how are they transferred to new species to influence disease? Cases of Typhoid Fever in people without known exposure to another diseased person suggest there may be an environmental reservoir. What might it be?

Stanley is a big proponent of scientist entrepreneurs and participates with the NSF Innovation Corps to promote early science start ups. In addition to creativity and the scientific process, one characteristic he encourages all entrepreneurs to develop is a good team spirit. Working collaboratively as a team is a very strong sign of success.

Stanley believes in the importance of an international science communities, and he practices what he preaches: he works closely with the scientific community of Chile. He began in 1990 by teaching an intensive lab course about techniques, and has developed a decades-long relationship with this community. These relationships allow a dialog, and were the reason Stanley ultimately turned his focus to Salmonella Typhi from Salmonella Typhimurium.

Featured Quotes

“My most cited paper is a technique paper! It’s not any of the great scientific discoveries from throughout my career. I think that really shows the impact that a new way of doing something can have on a whole field of science.”

“Antibiotic resistance is an example of a problem that’s not going to go away. This relates to us having an idea that we’re having this battle with bacteria. We’re never going to win the battle because we’re so outnumbered! But we can come up with ways to help us survive by dealing with these issues.”

“Metagenomics is like the invention of the microscope: it allowed us to see things we couldn’t even imagine!”

“If we’re going to keep getting funding to do basic science, we have an obligation to show that it really impacts peoples’ lives – and it’s not all going to come from big pharmaceutical companies.”

“I love to teach anyone will listen! That said, when I teach I burn a lot of energy; I think that comes from putting your heart and soul into it. I never give the same lecture twice, so I spend a lot of time thinking hard about what I’m going to do. So I like to have as big an audience as I can have!”

Links for This Episode

History of Micobiology Tidbit

You might not associate Salmonella with bioterrorism - as Stanley and I discussed, transmission is much more associated with contaminated food and water. However, the microorganism associated with the largest bioterrorist attack in the United States history is not Bacillus anthracis nor a weaponized virus but in fact is Salmonella enterica.

The perpetrators of this attack were the followers of a religious cult in Antelope, Oregon, located on the northern border of the state. The small town had seen an influx of cult members in the early 1980s, when a commune started by the Rajneesh movement was founded on the outskirts of town. Looking to take over the government, several cult members ran for seats on the Wasco County Circuit Court. The candidates worried that their campaigns wouldn’t allow the members to win by merit, and so several cult members plotted to win through voter contamination. That is, they planned to contaminate the voters, literally, by spreading diarrea-causing bacteria among the townspeople, which would cause voters to be incapacitated and inable to vote. The biological weapon? Salmonella Typhimurium.

The Salmonella was purchased from a medical supply company in Seattle, which likely passed muster because one of the planners was a nurse practitioner. To practice, they contaminated produce at salad bars of 10 local restaurants. One member brought in a plastic bag with liquid medium dense with Salmonella bacteria and poured it into the salad dressing, which would then sicken all salad bar patrons. This trial run didn’t reflect their plan for Election Day, which was to contaminate the local water system, but nevertheless resulted in 751 reported causes of acute gastroenteritis, confirmed to be Salmonella enterica Typhimurium. 150 people became violently ill, but fortunately, none of the victims succumbed to their infection.

There were no immediate accusations of bioterrorism, but the incident did warrant state and federal investigations, since this was the largest food-related outbreak in the United States in 1984. Believe it or not, the agencies originally concluded that the outbreak occurred due to poor hygiene of the restaurant workers, in part because the food prep staff fell sick before most patrons. It was only at the urging of Oregon Congressman James Weaver that the CDC became involved, though this was interpreted by some as religious prejudice against the Rajneesh followers. Over a year after the incident, the cult leader himself, Rajneesh, held a press conference in which he claimed several commune leaders had committed the crime; further investigation revealed the bacterial vials that had been sent from the medical supply company.

The incident occurred in 1984, the confession in 1985, but it wasn’t until 1997 that the scientific reports surrounding this case began to see the light of day. That was because the authorities had feared that publishing details about the case so close to the incidence date might inspire copycat crimes. In 1997, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a paper it had been holding for 12 years. The CDC’s report, also published in 1997, describes the Salmonella isolated from 52% of patients as unable to ferment dulcitol, which is an unusual biochemical characteristic only found in 2% of nontyphoidal salmonellae. These isolates also shared a single plasmid of the same size, lending further support to the notion that all individuals had been sickened from the same source.

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