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ELVIS Meltdown! Microbiology Concepts of Culture, Growth, and Metabolism Richard C. Stewart, Ann C. Smith and Patricia A. Shields Department of Cell...

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“ELVIS Meltdown!” by Stewart, Smith and Shields Page ± Richard C. Stewart, Ann C. Smith and Patricia A. Shields Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics University of Maryland—College Park, MD ELVIS Meltdown! Microbiology Concepts of Culture, Growth, and Metabolism Part I—Return to Sender Fresh out of college, with your degree in microbiology, you have landed your “² rst real job” as a scientist with DuPunt, a company that specializes in development and production of polyurethane derivatives (specialized plastics). You (and your boss) are not quite sure why DuPunt has a microbiologist on sta³ , but you are both about to ² nd out why the company desperately needs one now. Your boss has called you into his o´ ce. “Read this article!” he says, pushing the front page of a major national newspaper across his desk to you. ELVIS N AKED , S KINLESS UPON R ETURN FROM O UTERSPACE ! The recent return to Earth of the unmanned exploration probe ELV from the Nearby Previously Invisible Planet (NPIP) has provided scientists with important information about conditions on the surface of this recently discovered planet. Although physicists have made great advances in understanding how NPIP recently was “uncloaked,” perhaps the most interesting discoveries are yet to come as biological scientists begin to analyze the soil samples collected by the probe’s Extraterrestrial Landing Vehicle Integrated Sampler (ELVIS). Designed to gather samples and maintain them in their normal atmospheric and temperature conditions, this collection unit is a sophisticated robot and is the most expensive component of the ELV probe. Inspired by the acronym for the unit (ELVIS), workers constructed this robot to resemble music legend Elvis Presley, and even fashioned a white Spandex jumpsuit to clothe it. These design features have proven to be a public relations coup, endearing the 2- foot-tall robot to the public and making it the unof f cial mascot of the NASA space exploration program. This “human connection” has been instrumental in convincing Congress to provide the necessary funding for the ELV and many related space exploration programs. However, the successful completion of the ELV mission has generated a mystery, one that has led to accusations of contractors providing substandard materials (in particular defective plastics) used in the ELV or of someone intentionally sabotaging the plastic components of the ELV in an attempt to embarrass the U.S. space exploration program.
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“ELVIS Meltdown!” by Stewart, Smith and Shields Page ± Upon its return to Earth, the ELV capsule was opened to allow scientists to recover the soil samples. This was done as part of a special, televised “welcome home” ceremony, in which ELVIS was supposed to “dance” down the ELV exit ramp and speak his trademark words, “Thank you … thank you very much for supporting this critical space exploration mission.” NASA scientists and on-lookers at the ceremony were shocked to f nd that ELVIS’s jumpsuit had been reduced to a slimy puddle. Even more distressing was the deterioration of ELVIS’s “skin” (a version of Lycra specially developed to resemble human skin). This too was reduced to a slimy residue that dripped from the metal “skeleton” of the ELVIS unit. The deterioration of the plastic components of ELVIS ruined what organizers had planned to be a touching ceremony at the mission’s completion. ELVIS’s exit from the otherwise intact spacecraft was met by gasps and screams from the gathered audience. “It was a terrible sight!” said one member of the audience. “We expected to see the King, but we saw a horrible mess, a grotesque parody of Elvis. Without his plastics lips, I couldn’t understand a word he said … and the smell was horrible!” said one NASA of f cial who wished to remain anonymous. Television viewers were spared much of the trauma of these sights as networks quickly switched to new episodes of Sponge Bob Squarepants in which a cartoon version of the ELVIS unit was featured. An investigation is underway. Stif ing your initial reaction (“Oh yeah, new Sponge Bob!”) you manage to mumble, “What a tragedy!” “Yes. Yes. And this could take an ugly turn For DuPunt!” your boss says. “I’m not sure what caused this mess, but I do know a couple oF things that didn’t make it into that news article: (²) the only plastics showing damage in the ELV were polyurethanes; and (±) our company provided those polyurethane products to NASA at a cost oF $²³,´´´,´´´. We’re in big trouble iF we can’t prove that something From that planet is responsible For destroying ELVIS.” He continues, “µ e polyurethane products we provided were ¶ rst-rate. We didn’t cut any corners with this stu· . Products From the same batches oF polyurethane have been into outer space beFore, and they returned just ¶ ne. µ ere must be some explanation other than our incompetence. µ is is where you come in. I need you to ¶ nd that explanation!” “Why me?” you ask. “Because oF the stink!” your boss answers. “Some oF the scientists present at the ELVIS disaster said the smell reminded them oF an old Fermenter or an autoclave. µ ose are microbiology terms, aren’t they?” says your boss. “µ ose comments tell me that this whole stinking mess might be caused by microorganisms—you know, bacteria, Fungi, viruses, germs … something like that. Get right to work on this! You and I will have to work closely on this, you know. I’ll handle all the communications with the press, and you handle the science. Just make sure that you explain everything to me so that I can speak about it to the press without making a Fool oF myselF and DuPunt!”
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