What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger…the story of bacteria.

There’s a power struggle going on. It’s not an obvious, headlining struggle of the powerful taking advantage of the less powerful–a struggle waiting for a Ronan Farrow expose. It’s a simple, everyday struggle for existence in a hostile environment, and it goes on continuously in your kitchen and your laundry room.

The survivors are a smelly group of microbes most of which are known as Moraxella osloensis that take over a dirty sponge or dirty clothes. These superbugs stink up the house even though your cleaning regime is beyond reproach.

One would expect the kitchen to be a source of bacteria, but even microbiologists were surprised at how many bacteria lurked in the common kitchen sponge. After examining the DNA and RNA in samples of used sponges, a research team identified 362 different species of bacteria living in sponges. Even more surprising was the density of the bacteria. In one cubic inch of space there were 82 Billion bacteria—approximately the same number found in human stool samples.                (That space was to give you a moment to form an image.) “There are probably no other places on earth with such high bacterial densities,” according to the scientists.

The very design of sponges that make it an instrument of cleaning, i.e. all those inner spaces to hold liquids and an exterior conceived to scrape food, dirt, grime and unwanted substances from dishes, counters, skin, high chairs, etc. are all attributes that make it a germ-magnet…a warm, wet, “nutrient”-rich germ-magnet.

One of the most common of these microbes is Moraxella osloensis, commonly found in nature and on the skin of humans. This microbe is what makes a sponge stink. It is what makes dirty laundry (and sometimes even laundry that has just been washed) smell funky. The bad odor is a result of the metabolism of the bacteria. Moraxella osloensis excretes fat. That excreted fat is what stinks. It is this same process that makes decomposing bodies smell.

As a fan of “Law and Order”, I have watched many episodes as Lenny and Ray entered an apartment containing a dead victim.  I can suggest a smear of Vicks under your nose to make using a sponge bearable. Or, you can try other methods. Microwaving a sponge, adding it to a dishwasher cycle or a laundry load or boiling it—all these methods of disinfecting seem viable. However, researchers tested sponges that had been cleaned in these ways. These “clean” sponges contained more of the Moraxella osloensis microbes than dirty sponges.

Antibiotic use is being curtailed because it leads to the evolution of more potent bacteria. An antibiotic kills the less powerful, leaving space and food for the more powerful. It is the perfect example of “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” The same mechanism works with microbes. The strong survive. And the strong stink. According to microbiologist Dr. Markus Egert, “When people at home try to clean their sponges, they make it worse, similar to how people can encourage antibiotic-resistant bacteria if they don’t follow the doctor’s orders….if you can’t clean it perfectly, it may be best to replace it with a new one every week or so—especially “if it starts to move.” If there is a sick person in your house, replace your sponge daily, or use paper towels or brushes or washcloths. These alternatives lack the moist nooks and crannies of sponges. (By the way, a vegan’s kitchen is not immune from these microbes.)

While we are in the kitchen, there are some other interesting tidbits of information that are applicable. That king of cleaning, chlorine, works in an interesting way. Chlorine is “really hungry for electrons”, according to scientists. “It doesn’t have enough. The food that gets stuck to your dishware is basically hydrocarbons, and they are great sources of electrons…(Chlorine bleach cleans by a chemical reaction.) “The chlorine grabs the electrons from the hydrocarbons, the oxygens and chlorides gent bonded to the carbons, and…this makes your food stains water soluble.” Down the drain they go. Better living through chemistry.

More dishwasher science will answer that burning question—“Why do plastic items in a dishwasher take so much longer to dry than similar items made of metal, glass or ceramic?”

The first and most obvious answer is that metal, glass and ceramic are denser. Hence, they hold heat while washing and then radiate that heat to evaporate water after the dishwashing cycle is over. The other process at work in drying dishes involves a process called “wetting out”. The dense kitchenware (glass, ceramic, metal) is held together with bonds higher in energy than water. When they meet the water spreads into a thin, even film (called hydrophilic). Polypropylene plastic has a lower energy surface (hydrophobic). Such surfaces cause water not to spread out thinly, but, instead, to form large droplets. Those droplets require more heat or more time to evaporate.

What a little research has taught me is that A’s in high school and college Science classes meant nothing. Until one has a curiosity about why things happen the way they do, a curiosity that is usually rewarded with fascinating answers, life is not nearly as interesting and full as possible. I wish I had paid more attention in class. Perhaps today I could have been the creator of a delivery system for an oral dose of Moraxella osloensis. Everyone could ingest their fat-eating microbes. The only telltale signs would be their svelte bodies and the Vicks under their nose.

Written by Margaret Pendleton & published with permission.

Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash

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