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Mysteries of the Microscopic World

Mysteries of the Microscopic World

Course No.  1551
Course No.  1551
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  29 minutes per lecture

An invisible world of astonishing complexity is all around you. A world so small you can't see it with the naked eye. A world so crowded that its population staggers the mind. A world in which you participate every day—often without even knowing it.

The inhabitants of this world are trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other organisms, collectively known as microbes. Hundreds of thousands could fit on the period at the end of this sentence. And many play a powerful role in your life, from the bacteria in your stomach that help you digest food to the pathogens that make you sick.

Mysteries of the Microscopic World is your illustrated guided tour through a realm that is as teeming with exotic life as any rainforest—and that is just as exciting. Presented by award-winning Professor Bruce E. Fleury of Tulane University, these 24 half-hour lectures tell the story of

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An invisible world of astonishing complexity is all around you. A world so small you can't see it with the naked eye. A world so crowded that its population staggers the mind. A world in which you participate every day—often without even knowing it.

The inhabitants of this world are trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other organisms, collectively known as microbes. Hundreds of thousands could fit on the period at the end of this sentence. And many play a powerful role in your life, from the bacteria in your stomach that help you digest food to the pathogens that make you sick.

Mysteries of the Microscopic World is your illustrated guided tour through a realm that is as teeming with exotic life as any rainforest—and that is just as exciting. Presented by award-winning Professor Bruce E. Fleury of Tulane University, these 24 half-hour lectures tell the story of

  • how microbes evolved;
  • how they function;
  • how humans discovered them;
  • how they harm and also help us; and
  • how we compete, coexist, and coevolve.

A Spellbinding Narrative

Assuming no background in science, Mysteries of the Microscopic World teaches you all the biology you need to understand cells as the basic unit of life, DNA as the amazingly versatile genetic code, the immune system as an almost miraculous arsenal of defenses, and other features of the tiny domain where microbes thrive. Among the intriguing concepts you encounter are these:

  • Coevolution: Civilization and microbes have grown up together—in beneficial associations such as bread- and winemaking, and less fortunate relationships such as the pandemics that have periodically changed the course of history.
  • Extremophiles: On Earth, microbes flourish in environments of punishing heat, cold, acidity, and saltiness, where nothing else can survive. These "extremophiles" may be clues to what life is like on other planets.
  • Cyanobacteria: Earth owes its oxygen-rich atmosphere to the evolution of photosynthetic cyanobacteria. These tiny organisms were so successful that they dominated the planet for nearly two billion years.
  • Darwinian medicine: Outsmarting disease-causing organisms means understanding how they evolved to make us sick and how they adapted to defeat our treatments. In medicine, it pays to think like Darwin.
  • Cytokine storm: When people in the prime of life are felled by an epidemic, it could be because the pathogen induces a "cytokine storm," an immune system overreaction—as happened to millions of young people in the deadly 1918 flu.

Professor Fleury weaves these and many other stories into a spellbinding narrative that takes you from the germ theory of disease to germ warfare, from the challenges of being small to the advantages of infecting through a "vector" intermediary, from ancient prokaryotes to the latest probiotics. After watching these lectures, you will be able to follow with deeper understanding news reports about epidemics, vaccine research, antibiotic-resistant germs, bioterrorism, and many other topics about the microbial world.

Evolutionary Arms Race

In our ceaseless contact with microbes, the good news is that some age-old diseases are being defeated. Smallpox, a scourge as ancient as human history, was eradicated in the late 1970s, and similar campaigns are underway against polio, leprosy, and guinea-worm.

But the bad news is that many microbes mutate astonishingly quickly, making them highly adaptable in the evolutionary arms race with each other and with us. The following battles, covered in detail in this course, are still inconclusive:

  • HIV/AIDS: Only 50 years have passed since HIV first appeared in humans, which is not long enough for the body to evolve an effective defense—or for HIV to coevolve to a less virulent strain. The most worrisome scenario is for the virus to mutate into an airborne form.
  • Multiple drug resistance: In 1952, penicillin could cure virtually any infection caused by Staphylococcus. No more. Today, the bane of hospitals is the multidrug-resistant Staph strain MRSA. Even more troubling is a resistant strain of Streptococcus dubbed flesh-eating bacteria.
  • Killer flu: The deadliest epidemic of all time was the 1918 flu, killing an estimated 50 to 100 million people. Starting as a normal flu, it mutated into an unusually virulent form. Scientists have recovered samples of the virus from victims of the era so they can sound the alarm when a similar flu type appears.

A Scientific Detective Story

Just as interesting as the microbes are the scientists who discovered and charted this microscopic realm. It's easy to forget that the cause of plagues and even the existence of microorganisms were a complete mystery for thousands of years, until the work of science detectives such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, who laid the foundations for bacteriology; or Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin; or the unheralded Ernest Duchesne, who recognized the antibiotic properties of penicillin more than 30 years before Fleming, but whose work went unnoticed. Among the other pioneers of the microscopic world that you learn about are these:

  • Ignaz Semmelweis: Working in Vienna in the 1840s, Semmelweis linked his hospital's high mortality rate among women in childbirth with their treatment by staff members who did frequent autopsies. The solution, washing hands with disinfectant, was rejected by his offended colleagues.
  • Alexandre Yersin: When the bubonic plague struck China in the 1890s, this Swiss bacteriologist rushed to the scene. Together with a Japanese researcher, Dr. Kitasato, he discovered the plague bacillus, identifying the pathogen that had menaced the world for centuries.
  • Stanley Miller: Microbial and other life had to start with complex biomolecules. In the 1950s, graduate student Stanley Miller, working under Nobel laureate Harold Urey, performed a brilliant experiment showing that the chemical precursors of life formed naturally in conditions thought to exist on the early Earth.

World of Wonder

The winner of two Mortar Board Awards for outstanding teaching from Tulane University, Professor Fleury has a gift for making science accessible to non-scientists. In Mysteries of the Microscopic World, he tackles the ideal subject, one that is unusually rich in historical and cultural connections, human stories, intriguing technical details, and relevance to the daily lives of everyone. "This is one of the most fascinating areas in biology," he notes, "not just because of the value we get from knowing how and why we get sick, but because of the sheer beauty of what's going on at the microscopic level."

After viewing this course, he says, "you'll never feel quite the same way about the world again, because wherever you go, whatever you do, you'll be more aware of all the creatures that are living around you, hidden by their small size."

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    The Invisible Realm
    Step into the hidden world of microbes and learn the challenges and advantages of being small—very small. Microbes live in a realm where water seems as thick as molasses and the smoothest surface conceals a canyon of hiding places. Also see how the geometry of a sphere explains how bacteria survive. x
  • 2
    Stone Knives to Iron Plows
    Turn back the clock to a time when our early ancestors escaped most epidemic diseases. But once we started gathering into villages, raising crops, and domesticating animals, we changed our niche and altered our habitat. Deadly microbes thrived in these new conditions. x
  • 3
    The Angel of Death
    Follow the trail of one of the most infamous microbes of all time, Yersinia pestis, the cause of the Black Death. Like typhus, malaria, and dengue fever, the Black Death is a vector-borne disease—one transmitted from human to human via a host intermediary; in this case, fleas. x
  • 4
    Germ Theory
    In the days before the invention of the microscope and the rise of modern medicine, how did people explain a killer plague? Retrace the steps that led pioneers such as Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Ignaz Semmelweis to the startling conclusion that organisms invisible to the naked eye cause disease. x
  • 5
    The Evolutionary Arms Race
    In the first of three lectures on the coevolution that shapes our relationship with the microbial world, explore the discovery of antibiotics and the subsequent upsurge in antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, driven by our overuse of drugs that were once a magic bullet against infection. x
  • 6
    Microbial Strategies
    Probe the different mechanisms that humans have evolved to defeat microbial invaders, and the strategies evolved by microbes to thwart those defenses. For example, our immune system is primed to produce fever and other infection-fighting responses, but many microbes have developed frighteningly potent countermeasures. x
  • 7
    Virulence
    Virulence is a measure of the effectiveness of a microorganism at killing its victims. Discover that many diseases, such as syphilis, scarlet fever, and diphtheria, have grown less virulent due to competition and coevolution. On the other hand, vector-borne pathogens often succeed by growing more virulent. x
  • 8
    Death by Chocolate
    Chart the human-created niches where microbes flourish. Trade, travel, and technological innovations provide new opportunities for the evolution or dispersal of pathogens, including Legionnaires’ disease in air conditioning systems, toxoplasmosis in kitty litter, and Oropouche fever in fields cleared for the cultivation of cacao, used in making chocolate. x
  • 9
    Bambi's Revenge
    Consider more examples of how ecological disturbances, both natural and human-made, can benefit harmful microbes. Thanks to land-clearing and the subsequent explosion in the deer population, Lyme disease now occurs throughout much of the United States. More frightening and deadly, if less widespread, are hantavirus, Lassa fever, and Ebola. x
  • 10
    The Germ of Laziness
    The hookworm influenced an early 20th-century stereotype of Southerners as indolent and undernourished, and it may have contributed to the outcome of the Civil War. Chart the war waged against this debilitating parasite by zoologist Charles Wardell Stiles, whose public health crusade helped transform the South. x
  • 11
    The 1918 Flu—A Conspiracy of Silence
    In the first of three lectures on the deadliest epidemic of all time, meet the virus that caused the 1918 flu, investigating its structure, method of infection, and strategy for evading the human immune system. Also learn where it first appeared and how it mutated into a far more virulent strain. x
  • 12
    The 1918 Flu—The Philadelphia Story
    Track the mutated form of the 1918 flu as it reached American shores and killed an estimated 675,000 people out of a population of 105 million. Philadelphia is a horrifying example of the medieval-like conditions that affected a bustling city trying to deal with mass infection and death. x
  • 13
    The 1918 Flu—The Search for the Virus
    Follow one of the most gripping detective stories of modern times—the search to recover an intact virus from the 1918 flu. Also learn what made the 1918 flu a more powerful killer than the similar strain that attacked in 1976 and 2009. x
  • 14
    Immunity—Self versus Non-Self
    Given the proliferation of microbes in our midst, why aren’t we sick all the time? In the first of six lectures on the inner mysteries of the immune system, see how different cells have evolved to distinguish self from non-self, providing the first line of defense against infection. x
  • 15
    Adaptive Immunity to the Rescue
    Delve deeper into the mechanics of adaptive immunity to learn how a few hundred genes can easily make more than 100 million different antigen receptors, specific to any foreign invader that enters the body. Also discover the crucial difference between resistance and immunity. x
  • 16
    AIDS—The Quiet Killer
    In our age-old struggle with microbes, have we finally met our match with AIDS? The HIV virus that causes AIDS takes aim at the very heart of the human immune system. Probe this elegant strategy and learn where and when HIV first appeared, and why it is so lethal. x
  • 17
    The Deadly Strategy of AIDS
    Explore the frightening scenarios that may yet unfold with the AIDS pandemic. Then follow the slow progress in developing an AIDS vaccine, and consider the policy of deferring questions of sexual morality to focus on preventing spread of the virus at all costs. x
  • 18
    Autoimmunity—Self versus Self
    Consider what happens when the immune system turns on us, attacking our own cells and tissues as if we were the enemy. Such autoimmune diseases include multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes, and lupus. Examine the mysterious causes of this self-destructive reaction. x
  • 19
    Allergies and Asthma
    In the closing lecture on the human immune system, follow the microscopic chain of events that lead to allergies and asthma. Peanuts, pollen, bee stings, cat hair—all can cause an overreaction in the immune system, but for different reasons and with results that range from discomfort to death. x
  • 20
    Microbes as Weapons
    Investigate the history of microbes as weapons, which dates to the practice of catapulting disease-infected corpses into enemy strongholds. Germ warfare was even used during the American Revolutionary War, but it didn’t reach maturity until World War II with Unit 731, the notorious project run by the Japanese. x
  • 21
    Pandora’s Box
    As if from Pandora’s box, the technology of germ warfare advanced during the cold war to a lethality rivaled only by atomic weapons. Draw back the curtain on the secret American and Soviet projects that perfected this weapon, and learn why biological warfare is the strategy of choice for terrorists. x
  • 22
    Old World to New
    When European explorers arrived in the New World, they unwittingly brought weapons far more lethal than firearms: namely, microbes, such as smallpox, that the Indians had never encountered. Learn why diseases bred through contact with domesticated animals in the Old World swept through the Americas like the angel of death. x
  • 23
    Close Encounters of the Microbial Kind
    Is there life beyond Earth? Space is filled with the chemicals essential for life, but so far only indirect evidence for possible microbial life has been found. Also, look at the microbes that thrive in extreme environments on Earth that may resemble conditions on other worlds. x
  • 24
    Microbes as Friends
    In this last lecture, consider how the vast majority of microbes are harmless or even beneficial to humans. Microorganisms are responsible for everything from the oxygen in air to yogurt and many medicines. They may even help us clean up our planet, proving that the microscopic world is not always the stuff of nightmares! x

Lecture Titles

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Bruce E. Fleury
Ph.D. Bruce E. Fleury
Tulane University

Dr. Bruce E. Fleury is Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University. He earned a B.A. from the University of Rochester in Psychology and General Science, and an M.A. in Library, Media, and Information Studies from the University of South Florida. His career as a college reference librarian led him to Tulane University, where he became head of the university library's Science and Engineering Division. He went on to earn an M.S. and a Ph.D. in Biology, both from Tulane. Professor Fleury is the author of numerous articles and newspaper columns, both popular and professional, and a reference book on dinosaurs. He teaches between 600 and 700 students a year, and his courses include ornithology, introductory general biology and environmental biology, the history of life, and evolution in human health and disease. His teaching awards include two awards for outstanding teaching from the Tulane chapter of the Mortar Board National College Senior Honor Society and a Mortar Board 'Last Lecture' Award, in which favorite professors are invited to give a lecture as if it were their last. Recently, Professor Fleury served as an advisor for Warner Brothers' space epic Green Lantern, working on several classroom and laboratory scenes, and serving as a 'consulting xenobiologist' on alien life.

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