After exploring a cave, your clothes take on a certain smell. It’s earthy, the essence of dirt and dampness. Some cavers like to pick up their coveralls and take a deep sniff to get a caving fix between trips. They covet the smell, protect it.
Hazel Barton doesn’t do this. She’s an avid caver, but she’s also a microbiologist. She knows that the smell comes from compounds made by a microbial phyla called Actinomycete, which decomposes organic materials. Before entering a cave, she washes those bugs away, ties back her auburn hair, and takes care not to spill a single crumb of food—it can feed a million microbes for months. She needs to be as clean and unobtrusive as possible.
Deep in the recesses of the earth, she’s not just caving for the thrill; she’s also collecting microbes whose lack of outside contamination is their greatest asset and that could help us deal with a growing threat: antibiotic resistance.
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