Bad Breath
Mon, 24 Aug 1994 20:54:46

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Date: Wed, 24 Aug 94 20:46:46 EDT
Subject: Bad Breath
In 1985 I began to wonder about the lousy breath in some humpback whales. At
that time the offhand official explanation was that the stench arose from
food bits rotting in the baleen. That was very unlikely because the esophagus
is isolated from the trachea in whales. There is no true oro-pharynx in
whales. So the smell was coming from the blowhole and that meant the
bronchial tree might be infected.
In my office, when I suspected a strep throat, it was routine to take a swab
from the throat of the patient and test for the suspect bacteria. How do you
do that for a whale ?
Simple take the mountain to Mohammed.. I placed an agar plate on a bent coat
hanger frame. Stuck the holder on a bamboo pole and put the plate over
blowhole of the whale.
Whales cannot cough or sneeze, if they did they would likely drown. Instead
of coughing whales rely on the explosive and volumetrically large tidal
volume of their breaths to clear the bronchial tree. In effect each breath is
a cough and the mist generated contains a true random sample of bacteria
present in the lungs and bronchi.
The results from the first few smelly whales were negative nothing grew on
the incubated plates.  Finally one wonderful humpback (#385 Nevus) swam along
the rail of the boat my son and I were on and coated my agar plate and arm
with goop. The sample was sent to the lab with the unusal instructions to
incubate the plate until something grew. Strongly  pathogenic  bacteria grow
full colonies in 24 hours. Almost all pathogens show up in 48 hours. This
wimpy bug took 240 hours to show up. It was a dark diptheroid bacteria with
strict preference for blood agar.
To make a very long story short, the isolated organism was a previously
undiscovered species of diptheroid that needs pressure to grow quickly.  Dr.
Linda Schlater of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service lab in
Ames,Iowa called me one day to ask what she was doing "wrong" with the bug in
her lab. She finally asked if there was a factor in the ocean environment
that might affect both the whales and the bugs.  It was a EUREKA moment. It
had to be pressure!  The effective pressure increases at one atmosphere for
every 30 feet of depth.  We quickly designed a modified 1950's pressure
cooker from the kitchen and grew the samples in increasing steps of pressure
until the cooker blew up.
The result of all of this is a non fatal form of diptheria in humpbacks.
Humpbacks that dive too long and too deep develop diptheria and the
pathognomonic bad breath of that disease.
All of the whales found with bad breath were older than one and younger than
three years. These are whales that are beginning to fend for themselves and
are at the bottom of the social ladder.
Calves do not exhibit bad breath because they have no need to feed themselves
and don't have to dive deeply.  Adult whales have learned to assert
themselves and elbow their way to the food. The whales with the greatest
metabolic needs are nursing females. They are larger than males and will
aggressively occupy preferred feeding areas. I define a preferred feeding
area as rich in food and relatively shallow. Unaggressive whales are quickly
driven off to less desirable feeding areas where food may be as plentiful but
is found deeper. This means more work for the food but also means that the
whale is under increased whole body pressure for longer periods of time. The
bacteria will then grow more aggressively and cause diptheria. The disease
causes an erosion of the mucosal lining of the trachea and the development of
a pseudomembrane in the airway. The stench from the rotting tissues is the
source of bad breath.
Fortunately the whale does not usually die from the episode. The whale
probably feels poorly and tries to rest. That means spending long stretches
of time at the surface. The effective pressure would then drop to one
atmosphere and the bacteria could not grow at pathogenic rates. The disease
triggers it's own cure.
Any questions? Please ask here at Environet.
Tom Ford