Meet the bacteria responsible for botulism, and why it might be so hard to kill

The discovery of the Listeria variant in Iowa this past summer led to a national scare and an outbreak that, by some estimates, sent the number of cases to 50,000, causing 44 deaths and…

Meet the bacteria responsible for botulism, and why it might be so hard to kill

The discovery of the Listeria variant in Iowa this past summer led to a national scare and an outbreak that, by some estimates, sent the number of cases to 50,000, causing 44 deaths and hospitalizing 1,300 individuals. The outbreak continues to occur in recent months in the Midwest.

Meanwhile, nationwide, the contaminant grows on parents’ minds as a potential trigger for foodborne illnesses or, worse, a death toll to rival, say, the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu, a pandemic that killed as many as 50 million people worldwide.

Omicron is the most common form of botulism in the United States. To date, the best way to protect the average consumer is to dispose of raw meat or poultry at the time of cooking.

These are good odds, but not good enough if you’re a doctor. “Eliminate the vast majority of these reports,” says Dr. Joe Webster, chief of infectious diseases at North Carolina Hospital. “It can only stop once we identify all botulism strains.”

At least one reason for that urgency: the discovery of active mutation that would extend the life of the bacteria. One more change could make the bacteria resistant to powerful antibiotics and make the risk of contracting the infection of Listeria variant increased.

Bug, bots nachos

Like many other bacteria, the Omicron strains are opportunistic. Food and water contamination can be just the start of a domino-like disease chain that includes irrigation with unclean drinking water, improper food handling, insufficient heat or humidity and improper sterilization. As each step gets moved out of order, so too do the paths that foodborne pathogens can take to infect people and animals.

The Omicron pathogen, when exposed to alfalfa sprouts or a prepared taco, will push itself through a vegetable culture where it can grow on a hard surface, carry on a human host through the digestive tract and enter the bloodstream. In one common form of Omicron, the E. coli strain in the food still poses a risk. In another form of the bacteria, the contamination is at a much more remote “second location” where the botulism is able to propagate in the human body.

The growth of the bacteria is driven by a unique protein that bonds to an inner cell surface and acts as a glowing LED, allowing the bugs to glow from the inside out. “It’s an incredibly illusive infection because if you find it in the middle, it’s not a biohazard,” says Dr. Allan Finnell, who runs the antimicrobial research laboratory at the Ohio State University College of Medicine. The radiation of the LEDs also allows the bug to mutate rapidly. “Even if the E. coli is at the first location, you may still find it in the second place,” Finnell says.

Chemical mist

E. coli, botulism and other bacteria share a tendency for rapid evolution thanks to a phenomenon known as holobacterization, an RNA that unlocks the nucleus of the bacteria’s chromosomes. Once the internal battery-like microbial DNA has been switched on, the bug can transform itself into other virulent forms, all vying for space in a primeval repository of genetic information.

Evidence suggests that the genes responsible for becoming an aerosolized, real-world version of the European Mycobacterium used in the early 1900s to make and spray industrial chemicals like Janofritz in gas masks still remain in the bacteria. Biologists have asked whether the more recent variants can mutate and adapt to survive the water gasses, dye, freezing and chemical-laden environments that a dramatic change in food production requires.

The hazards of contamination with carrion are a frequent source of infection in humans. In 2012, 58 people died from an outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce. While food safety and bacteria lineage experts can’t say for sure whether the bacterium was named after the National Institutes of Health or the United States Food and Drug Administration (the latter referred the message from the CDC to the NIH) they are convinced that its less well-known variant Omicron was responsible for a Thanksgiving Day outbreak of botulism in 2013. The strain even makes sense when applied to a mouse — the single mouse that carried it in a study published last spring in the journal PLOS Pathogens caused paralysis in the necks of the animals that received the mice dish feed.

Only this year, however, has a U.S. outbreak of Omicron emerged from the waist-high

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