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Bacteria - Caught in the Act

Infection-causing bacteria are the bad guys of the health-care world, but dental detectives found a new way to track them down.

Scientists traditionally use a technique known as swabbing to collect and identify bacteria. They swipe a cotton swab across a surface and culture what’s gathered on an agar plate in an incubator for 48 hours. In trying to hunt down the missing bacteria, Alt-Holland methodically eliminated all possible suspects along the testing chain: flaws in the agar plates used to grow the bacteria, the swabs, the swab solution, the incubation process. All came up clean.

The conclusion was troubling. Swabbing—the universally accepted method—must be the culprit. Had she overlooked something? And then it hit her: eliminate the middleman, the swab itself. She cut a piece off a discarded plastic barrier and pressed it directly on an agar plate. In 48 hours, multiple bacteria grew.

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