Microbiological, virological, bacteriological, immunological, medical, epidemiological, historical, anecdotal

Category: Parasitological

Confusing movie science: S+H+E (1980)

She. A title familiar to millions, from H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 adventure novel that’s had a half-dozen film adaptations, giving actresses like Helen Gahagan and Ursula Andress a chance to be statuesque and intimidating as the titular 2,000-year-old sorceress worshiped by remote tribesmen.she-poster-1979

This is not one of those films. Having bought it along with other 1980s VHS tapes, I expected the 1982 adaptation of Haggard’s novel starring Sandahl Bergman of Conan the Barbarian and Hell Comes to Frogtown fame. Instead, it’s the acronymic S+H+E: Security Hazards Expert, which aired on CBS in February 1980. Filmed on location in “Italy and Berlin”, this was an ambitious attempted pilot for a Charlie’s Angels-esque series about a female secret agent played by Cornelia Sharpe, wife of producer Martin Bregman.

She is as effective as you could hope for as a “Diana Rigg type”. The whole movie is entertaining, despite the random elements that only make sense if there are subsequent episodes (like her Italian boyfriend who wants her to retire and settle down) and the soundtrack consisting of the same song over the opening credits, closing credits, every montage, and every action sequence. Adding to the enjoyment was the single trailer that preceded the movie, for another CBS TV movie starring Dyan Cannon as a madam who was elected mayor of Sausalito, California.

* * *


The last thing I expected from this movie was microbiological blog fodder. But after hearing the characters talk about the science that underlies the plot, I had to stop and figure out exactly why it didn’t make sense.

* * *

First, we’re introduced to the wine scientists. The whole movie is on YouTube as of today; start around the 23-minute mark for this conversation. Charming wine magnate Cesare Magnasco (Omar Sharif) is showing our heroine Lavinia Kean around his sinister winery. Frau Doktor Biebling is played by sixties icon Anita Ekberg, in what I believe was her last English-language role.

  • Cesare: Miss Blake, this is our distinguished oenologist, Frau Doktor Biebling.
  • Lavinia: How do you do?
  • Biebling: (silence)
  • Cesare: Dr. Biebling is a genius. A Nobel Prize nominee in parasitology from the University of Heidelberg. Doctor, tell Miss Blake what we do here.
  • Biebling: We are approaching a very critical phase in our latest experiment, Barone. It requires concentration and my closest attention.
  • Cesare: Per favore. For her American readers. To make them drink more Magnasco!
  • Biebling: Our chief concern is to protect the vines. Particularly from a genus of insects of the family Phylloxera.
  • Lavinia: Which of the 32 known species do you specialize in?
  • Biebling: (silence)
  • Cesare: They destroyed millions of acres of grapes when first brought to Europe.
  • Biebling: (withering stare) From America.
  • Lavinia: (smirking) I’m terribly sorry! I won’t disturb you any longer.
  • As they leave Biebling’s lab, Magnasco points to two Petri dishes, saying “Experimental cultures”. Another scientist asks Biebling mockingly, “Why don’t you develop an anti-jealousy microbe?”

The issue here is the word “parasitology”. Although the Phylloxera family of aphids do act as parasites to grapevines, someone who studies them would be an entomologist. Parasitology generally refers to parasites of animals — especially worms or microscopic eukaryotes like malaria, Toxoplasma or Giardia. Wikipedia claims it also refers to organisms like fleas and lice, but even this only extends to parasites of animals, not plants.

It’s possible that instead of being an expert on aphids, she is an expert on microscopic parasites of aphids. This hypothesis is supported by the “experimental cultures”, which look like bacterial broth. However, I don’t think there are any such microbes, whether eukaryotic or bacterial. There are methods of aphid control using aphid parasites… but those parasites are tiny wasps. So either way, she’d be an entomologist!

Finally, calling someone a “Nobel Prize nominee in parasitology” sort of implies that there is a Nobel Prize in Parasitology, which there isn’t. And although it is prestigious to be nominated for a Nobel Prize, it’s not quite like the Academy Awards. The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine had 263 nominees.

* * *

But this is mere pedantry. The really confounding exchange is near the end, around minute 73. By now, the good guys have learned that Magnasco & Co. are holding the world’s petroleum supply hostage with something called “A.P.M.” Lavinia Kean, and her assistant/minder/colleauge Lacey (basically Bosley from Charlie’s Angels), have snuck into Frau Doktor Biebling’s laboratory again. They snoop around, and when they’re discovered, Lavinia injects Biebling with some sort of sedative, injected via flying mechanical bug.

  • Biebling: You again!
  • Lavinia: Do unto others… darling.
  • Biebling: I should have put you to sleep permanently. (passes out)
  • Lacey: (points to page of notes) “Anti-Petroleum Microbe”?
  • Both together: A.P.M.!
  • (she smears the orange liquid from one of the cultures on a slide, and they look at it under a microscope. Wriggling animalcules are seen through the lens)
  • Lavinia: There it is. A simple amoeba-type microbe found in tide pools. Elsa’s a parasitologist, but she wasn’t working on Phylloxera. She was developing A.P.M.
  • Lacey: I’m lost.
  • Lavinia: She fed and refined the algae with special nutrients. Now it’s a virulent strain that devours petroleum.
  • Lacey: I’m still lost.
  • Lavinia: When A.P.M. is mixed with petroleum it multiplies like crazy. Gasoline is refined petroleum.
  • She goes on to demonstrate how gasoline is flammable, but when mixed with A.P.M. it goes all foamy and inert.

This makes it clear that Frau Doktor Biebling is an expert on microbes, not so much on aphids.

This is gasoline. This is gasoline on A.P.M.

This is gasoline. This is gasoline on A.P.M.

Her work for Magnasco has been a matter of encouraging a certain microbe to grow on different substrates, akin to the classic experiments in microbial evolution where bacteria start to thrive on some molecule that used to poison them. With “A.P.M.”, they have made a microbe which “devours petroleum”, rendering it a foamy mass of uselessness. The notion of microbes engineered to eat hydrocarbons has been invoked for decades, generally as a good thing (cleaning up oil spills). Here it’s presented as a sort of plague, which if it ever enters a pipeline will spread and spread until it consumes our entire inexorably interconnected petroleum supply.


In a column from the 1980s, Dave Barry sees petroleum-eating microbes as neither plague nor panacea.

One problem here is that the new, oil-eating microbe is described as a “virulent strain”. That’s not what “virulent” means. A virulent strain would be one that is particularly harmful or deadly to the organism it infects. A.P.M., though scary, isn’t infecting anything — it’s just consuming certain nutrients.

And then there’s that word “parasitologist” again.

It seems that in the world of this movie, vines are protected against aphids by spraying them with an infectious agent that kills the bugs. So she could be a “parasitologist”, if the infectious agent is eukaryotic rather than bacterial.

A.P.M. under the microscope

A.P.M. under the microscope

Amoeba proteus (click for source)

Amoeba (click for source)

And indeed, it’s described as “a simple amoeba-type microbe”. Judge for yourself if that view through the microscope shows an amoeba-type microbe. What are some other possibilities? They appear filamentous, but not rigid enough to be filamentous bacteria, and I don’t see the branching that would indicate fungal hyphae. Maybe they are fragments of some larger structure. Could these be strands of filamentous algae, but photographed in a way that washes out the color?

Yes! In addition to being an amoeba, A.P.M. is described as “algae”. It normally lives in tidal pools, but has been acclimated to life in petroleum. And here I admit a misconception of my own: I thought algae would be a poor choice for evil scientists seeking speedy evolution of new abilities, compared to bacteria. But this might not be the case – Bradley Olson’s evolutionary biology lab at Kansas State, for example, uses algae as a model organism.

The question now has to be asked: Does Frau Doktor Biebling do any work at all related to grapevines? What did she promise to do in her grant proposals?

* * *

To read about a real-life salt-loving microbe that eats oil slicks, go to the MicrobeWiki entry on Alcanivorax.

To learn more about colorless algae that are also amoebae, infectious parasites of oil and studied by entomological oenologists, watch S+H+E.

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"The only way to deactivate A.P.M. is to freeze it in CO2, put it in metal containers and sink it in the Artic Ocean."

“The only way to deactivate A.P.M. is to freeze it in CO2, put it in metal containers and sink it in the Artic Ocean.” William Traylor (Lacey) and Cornelia Sharpe (Lavinia Kean) in S+H+E

A 1711 treatise on venereal disease (Part II: Human Anatomy)

Welcome back to Amboceptor’s exclusive, breaking coverage of Dr. John Marten’s Treatise of the Venereal Disease, a 1711 collection of medical science, anecdotes, rants, a few jokes, lots of letters between him and his patients and his colleagues — a long and rambling work, as books tended to be at the time.

Today, we’ll go through some of Dr. Marten’s best passages on the subject of basic anatomy, sexual and otherwise. For help with some of the old-timey words (“Polypi”? What are these salacious animals?), check out Monday’s post on vocabulary.


  • On food-borne parasites:
  • I had not given her above three or four Doses of a certain Mercurial Preparation (which I ever give to Salivate with), but she voided by Stool, in two Day’s time, an infinite number of Worms, both of the Ascarides and other kinds, small and great, and as she and others said, not less than a Quart; but I’ll no more dispute the Measure than the Number, but I am sure that I saw Thousands of them my self; such is the force of Mercury, by which may be seen, what an Enemy it is to Putrefaction. Enquiring of her if she used to void them, she told me, yes, and that she used mightily to eat raw Meat from the Butcher’s Shops, and frequently dine thereof; which I forbid, and prosecuted their Cures with the expected Success. (p. 706)
  • On infertility:
  • Hippocrates in his book de Sterilibus & de Natura Mulierum, advises that when Women cannot Conceive, and there seems to be no apparent Reason for the Defect, they should eat Polypi roasted very quick, and almost half burnt, and to beat Ægyptian Nitre, Coriander and Cummin-Seeds together, and make Balls of it, and apply them to the Pudendum; But yet this Remedy, he says, is not proper for all Women, but only such as are Cold and have but little Inclination, for the Polypus is a most salacious Animal, and goes into a Consumption through too much Coition; Such Things must needs encrease Seed, for they consist of such a Juice, and are apt to be turn’d into the same. (p. 285)
  • On lust:
  • And indeed had not Nature tack’d a more than ordinary pleasing Sensation and Desire to each Sex in the Act, by giving those Parts such a quick tender Sense, and transporting Titillations, which with all the Artillery of Reason we are not able to Control, (so furious is our passion for the Imbrace) we should have no manner of Incitement or Inclination to the performing it; and consequently Procreation must soon cease and be at end; for Man, a divine and most noble Creature, endu’d, as said before, with Reason and Understanding, would never yield to make his Mind subject to a Thing so Abject and Filthy, so Unclean and Brutish, as Carnal Copulation, were he not incited by the Power of those Venereous Ticklings we have spoken of, which Nature has plac’d in the Genital Parts, and furnished with more exact and exquisite Sense than any other Parts in the Body besides. (p. 29)
  • On seminal fluid:
  • There is a further addition to its Refinements accruing from the Windings and Turnings of these Pipes; for the Particles of the Blood procure a mutual disunion by whirling about, rebounding and jostling against one another; nay, it is likewise depurated in the Excretory Ducts of the Testicles and Epidydimis; in the Passages which we call the vasa deferentia, or as some Ejaculatoria, (because in the Minute of Enjoyment they forcibly emit the Seed) it’s perfecter than any where else; for there it begins to assume its white Colour and to turn frothy, whereas in the Testicles it was only grey and fluid; but the finishing stroak of its Perfection, the Features and Impression of true Seed are owing to the Animal Spirits employ’d in the Embrace, for that Passion not only puts the Seed in motion in order for Evacuation, but also alters it by rendring it sparking and active, and the more a Man is incited to the act of Venery, and his Desire raised, and yet delayed as to the Accomplishment the better and more elaborate his Seed is rendred, and by consequence impregnated to a greater degree of Fertility. (p. 43)
  • On the eggs in women’s testicles:
  • These Ova, or Eggs are not only found in the Testicles of Married Women, but also in Virgins, in the same manner as we find them in Pullets which will lay Eggs, tho’ they have no Conversation with a Cock; these Eggs are less or more, of the bigness of a green Pea, containing within them a Humour, which when it is boil’d, becomes hard, just, as said before, like the White and Yolk of a common Egg. (p. 160)
  • On old wives’ tales:
  • The time has not been more contended about, than the ill and offensive Qualities have been asserted by divers Authors; as first from the Pain it gives many Women in the evacuation, which they say is because it is Acrimonious, nay, Venemous; Some say likewise, that the Malignity of that Blood is so great, that by meer Contact it excoriates the Glans and Prepuce of a Man, upon his having to do with a Woman at that time; Nay, some affirm, that by a Man’s Copulating with his Wife when she has her Courses upon her, he will get the Venereal Disease, for that the Menstrual Blood is Infectious; They say further, that the Breath of a Menstruous Woman will give a lasting Stain to Ivory or a Looking-Glass, and that a little of that Blood dropt upon a Vine, or Corn, or any other Vegetable, will blast or cause the same to die; That if a Woman with Child be defiled with the Menstrua of another woman, she’ll miscarry; That if a Dog tastes the Courses of a Woman, he’ll run Mad; That if a Man tastes ’em, it will render him Epileptick; which with almost innumerable other ridiculous and foolish Fancies, tho’ related by grave and great Authors, are yet justly to be despised, as being contrary to Reason, and (most of them) Experience. (p. 168)
  • On skin cream:
  • Dr. Tho. Fuller, speaking of his Mercurial Lotion prepared with Sublimate, says it doth signal Service against any sort of cutaneous Foulness, for as much as it fetches out Humours impacted in the Pores and Spaces, be they never so small, dissolves the inveterate and pertinaceous Combinations of Salts and Sulphurs, and wherever it is applied, rectifies all the ill form’d Meatus’s of the Skin, and makes it freely passable. Upon which account its a useful thing, not only for deterging the Skin, and clearing it from Spots, but also for Pushes and Redness, whether in the Face or elsewhere; as also for Erysipelatose Affections, black Specks, and little Worms that nestle in the Face, and may be squeez’d out with ones Fingers. (p. 700)
  • On plastic surgery:
  • There was a Lady that had them so closely joyn’d, that her Husband could never have entrance; she had only a small Orifice in the middle that afforded a Passage to her Urine, and her Menstrual Blood; but having recourse to Surgery, and the Lips being Artfully separated, both above and below, she had several Children afterwards; and her husband used to say in a jocose way that the Surgeon had cut too far, but at the same time own’d, that his Wife was oblig’d to him for it, because it facilitated her delivery in Child-birth. (p. 187)
  • On boniness:
  • Very rarely, or hardly ever do we hear of what Bauhinus has observ’d, concerning a Clitoris, that it became Bony in a Venetian Courtezan, which by reason of its extream hardness, did so offend and hurt her Lovers in coition, that many times, by reason of Inflammations thereby, they were forced to fly to the Surgeons for help. (p. 199)
  • On pregnancy tests:
  • There are many fabulous Stories concerning the Signs that discover a Woman to be with Child or not, such as putting the Woman’s Urine in a Glass for three Days stopt close, and then straining it through a fine Linnen-cloth, wherein, if she be with Child, you will find many small living Creatures, and that by putting a green Nettle into the Woman’s Urine, and covering it close, and letting it remain therein a whole Night, if she be with Child, you’ll find the Nettle next Morning to be full of red spots, and if not with Child full of black spots. (p. 274)
  • On delayed puberty:
  • I have read of a young Man of eighteen Years of Age, who having no Testicles in his Scrotum, had a very Musical Voice, and by that means got his Living, and was much Esteem’d for his fine Singing, Charming even those that was the most insensible of the Pleasures of Musick, and whose Voice, when he sung and was not seen, was taken  by all that knew him not, to be a Woman’s. This young Man, tho’ he had no Testicles, was Amorously inclin’d and upon doing what he could towards the Caressing a common Woman, he not being able, as he own’d, to enter, yet, by only dallying with her, got a Clap, and upon that, a violent pain in his Scrotum, soon after which to his surprize, two Testicles fell into his Cod, whereupon he lost his fine Voice, which became like that of other Men. (p. 342)
  • On discharge of non-infectious origin:
  • As there are some Gleets in Men that are occasioned by a malignant or unchaste Conversation, and also by a too frequent Reiteration of the Venereal Act in sound Persons, so likewise by Wrenches, Strains, &c. or by exessive Evacuations of Seed (which is the Elixir hominis), or the Weakness of the Person, as before noted; also an Evacuation of Seed, called Stillicidium seminis, which is taken for a Gleet, happens at times involuntarily in Persons troubled with the Falling-sickness, &c. as in another Place I have hinted; but then neither of these are attended with that Virulency, as when from Venereal Causes, neither are the Consequences thereof so dangerous, or Cure so difficult. (p. 771)
  • On lubrication:
  • As to the Liquor which Women emit in Copulation, and is generally taken for Seed, the same Harvey says, that several Women emit no such Humour, and yet conceive; Nay, says he, some after they begun to emit this Liquor upon copulation, tho’ indeed they took great Pleasure in the Act, grew less fruitful than they were before. (p. 159)
  • On the bulbourethral glands:
  • The Gleet then is an oleaginous, smooth, transparent and glutinous Mucus, engendred in the Prostate, and other small Glandules that are immerst all about the Urethra, and throughout the Yard, as the whole Body of the Yard being Spungy, you may, upon dissection observe, and by your touch perceive this oleagineous Mucus perfused; the use thereof is so necessary, that without a sufficient Proportion of it, it is not possible the Yard should be erected, or at least continue its erection long; for the Spirits thronging into that Part in so great a Confluence as they do upon a Voluptuous Erection, would in a manner take fire, inflame, dry up, and wither the whole substance of the Yard, were it not temper’d by the aforesaid Mucus, which at the same time moistens and defends it (being naturally dry), by the oleaginous Lentour; for were it of an Aqueous or Saline nature only, it would soon be dried up; this Unctious Mucus is transmitted into the Urethra, through Meatus, proceeding from the Prostates and other lesser Glandules, about the Urinary Passage, wherewith that Passage is smeared and made smooth and glib, not only to defend it from the Acrimony of the Urine, and to facilitate the transflux thereof, but also, as Mr. Cowper says, to hinder any remains of Urine from mixing with the Semen in the Urethra, Tempore Coitus; and as all Men discharge that transparent, oily, and glutinous Mucus, when excited to Copulation; so do Women, when they are enclin’d to enjoy the same Amorous Embrace, and that much more in quantity in the Act it self. (p. 789)
  • On national characteristics:
  • In Brazil and America, History tells us, the Women have never any Monthly Purgations, not naturally so, but because they divert that Flux while they are young, by some means unknown to us. (p. 172)
  • On the Inhabitants of the Southern Countries:
  • The Pudenda or Genital Parts have commonly in most their just Dimensions, and a Man’s Yard, generally speaking, ought not to be above 6 or 7 Inches long and 3 or 4 in Circumference, and if in others it be longer or bigger, it serves not so well for Generation nor for the Venereal Act; for which reason the Inhabitants of the Southern Countries, who are generally so provided, are not so proper for Procreation as we that live more Northerly. (p. 58)

Coming next Wednesday: Part III: Human Behavior

Vermicious Macrogametocytes

I keep having ideas for “picture gallery” posts, involving different papers’ illustrations of the same sort of thing. So far I’ve only done one (the cockroach feeding apparati) as they turn out to be a lot of work and you can never tell which papers are going to have illustrations and which ones aren’t.

In searching for pictures of encapsulated roundworm larvae in various organs of various animals, I determined that they all look sort of the same. And it’s not that interesting to compare, say, a picture of mouse muscle to a picture of raccoon or porcupine muscle. It’s all muscle. Also it may not be a good idea to extend this blog into worms and other complicated parasite species. Malaria is a parasite and also an infectious disease. But what about worms? So in the area of parasitology, I may want to stick to protozoans.

Leucocytozoons are single-celled organisms that infect birds, and are transmitted by the bugs known as blackflies. They were first observed in the 19th century in owl blood, by a zoologist named Danilewsky working in Kharkov, Ukraine. Danilewsky named them for their resemblance to white blood cells, though the exact genus “Leucocytozoon” was not applied until 1904, as detailed in this historical report by Lithuanian pedant and protozoan expert Gediminas Valkiūnas.

They seem to have life cycles similar to malaria, being fellow members of the phylum Apicomplexa. They go through many stages of life. Sporozoites are generated in the gut of an insect, and migrate to the salivary glands. The insect injects them into the blood of a vertebrate, and they go through several more stages, first in the liver and then in red blood cells. Then an insect takes a blood meal, the parasites end up in the insect’s gut, and they eventually make more sporozoites. It seems that Leucocytozoons are not as specific as malaria parasites, as they often infect white blood cells as well as RBCs, and the sporozoites of some species thrive in places other than the liver.

* * *

This figure shows the “macrogametocyte” stage (macro-gamete-ocyte) of the parasite life cycle. The macrogametocytes grow inside red blood cells, eventually filling and distorting the cells. This may be a pretty standard illustration. But it brought something else to mind.

From Fallis AM, Desser SS, and Khan RA (1974), On species of Leucytozoon. Advances in Parasitology 12:1-67 : (available from the publisher, subscription required, or available in partial form from Google Books)


As rendered by the Canadian authors of the paper linked above, these jaunty, big-eyed, dancing blobs are quite evocative. The genus ranges from L. vandenbrandeni (#2), which looks like a baleful ocean sunfish and lives inside the similarly aquatic birds called cormorants, to L. bonasae (#19), which infects grouse and appears to be wearing one of those baggy vinyl baseball caps from the golden age of breakdancing.

The Leucocytozoons bring to mind another type of sinister creature on a more macroscopic scale, from one of my favorite children’s books.


Yes, the Vermicious Knids, which menace visitors to the Space Hotel in Roald Dahl’s Chocolate Factory sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Described initially as resembling eggs with no features other than eyes, they then show that they could change shape.

"They're tremendously proud of being able to write like that." "But why say scram when they wanted to catch us and eat us?" "It's the only word they know,"

“They’re tremendously proud of being able to write like that.” “But why say scram when they wanted to catch us and eat us?” “It’s the only word they know.”

The macrogametocytes of Leucytozoons look especially similar to Vermicious Knids when the latter are only displaying one eye, as in the above message to humanity, or in these creative illustrations by comics artist Isaac Cates.

Noncanonical Vermicious Knids

Noncanonical Vermicious Knids

* * *

As you’d expect, most useful photos of these organisms are in color and therefore don’t look much like these ink drawings.

But here’s some beautiful drawings, in color, of red blood cells containing a similar parasite, Haemoproteus syrnii. Just like the first Leucocytozoons ever observed, this organism infects owls. What are they trying to say? Are they communicating by Braille or some other pattern-based system? Or by spelling out letters? They seem only capable of “C” and “O”.

From Karadjian G et al. (2013), Haemoproteus syrnii in Strix aluco from France: Morphology, stages of sporogony in a hippoboscid fly, molecular characterization and discussion on the identification of Haemoproteus species. Parasite 20:32 (11 pages) :


The paper (from folks at France’s National Museum of Natural History) is free.

Mosquitoes? Malaria? I don’t buy it.

Question: Is malaria spread by the Anopheles mosquito?

Nowadays, we would say the answer is yes.

* * *

In July 1899, the answer was also yes. But it had been only a year or two since publication of the Nobel-winning work by Sir Ronald Ross which proved malaria was one of the diseases spread by mosquitoes.

Even for the best-supported hypothesis, there will be some evidence that points against it, and some people who are more easily convinced than others. Here’s a letter written by southern doctor Thomas W. Davis to the New York Medical Journal, pointing out that there is far from a perfect correlation between areas where man is made miserable by mosquitoes, and areas where man is made malarious by malaria. And therefore, in his opinion, the jury is still out regarding what sort of mechanism spreads this particular parasite from person to person.

Most of the NYMJ‘s readers and contributors could be expected to be northerners with little practical experience of the tropical disease in question, so Dr. Davis’s perspective is worth considering.


Source: New York Medical Journal (August 19, 1899), volume LXX, page 277.