We're not exactly sure when it happened, but somewhere between "Ren and Stimpy" and the "Ugly Doll" craze, someone decided that gross is cute. Stuffed versions of microscopic creatures that make us sick are one part of this "Blech Is Beautiful" movement.
Giant Microbes started producing plush versions of infectious diseases in 2002. The Delaware outfit started out with a line of common germs that had relatively simple shapes: Brightly colored fur and big shiny eyeballs made round stomachache and flu toys "cute."
More recent creations tackle stranger-looking critters, from the tied-in-a-knot shape of the Ebola virus to the corkscrew-like syphilis bacterium. A colony of round algae cells comes stitched together in a filament, and Giardia is complete with waving flagella.
Although the microbes are sold as teaching tools (especially the high-profile diseases, including HIV and TB, that are sold in the company's "professional" line), the company isn't above a healthy bit of personification. The flesh-eating bacterium is embroidered with a tiny knife and fork, the sleeping-sickness protozoan looks at you through heavy lids and a coquettish "kissing disease virus" looks to have applied some heavy-duty mascara.
Our only criticism is that, technically, not all of the Giant Microbes offered are actually microbes — which are generally defined as microorganisms that are too small to be seen with the naked eye and, often, in definitions, that are harmful to humans.
Nitpickers will note that viruses, though sufficiently tiny, are not actually living organisms. We're not nitpickers — wouldn't go that far. But red and white blood cells, though small enough, aren't independent critters at all, just cells inside us. Fleas? These are often big enough to see without a microscope. And calling a mosquito a microbe is definitely a stretch.
On the subject of plagues and pestilences: A recent book, Dr. Sharon Moalem's "Survival of the Sickest," hypothesizes that some microbial parasites thrive in the fight for evolutionary supremacy because they actually confer small benefits, and thus become valuable, to the people they infect.
If microbes can get us to buy stuffed versions of themselves to give as gifts, they may already have won.
Giant Microbes roster:
How to keep real bacteria off your stuffed bacteria:
— Chelsea MartinezCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times