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Thursday, October 14, 2010

To our misfortune, bacteria help each other out

Campylobacter jejuni (left) is the leading cause of human gastroenteritis. It is generally contracted from contaminated food, especially meat and poultry. However, a question that has stumped microbiologists is: how can the bacteria survive on the surface of meat long enough to infect the next consumer? After all, C. jejuni are adapted to life in the oxygen deficient insides of an animal’s gut, not out in the open air. The answer may lie in the cooperative community of microorganisms.

Although C. jejuni cannot grow in the high oxygen content of our normal atmosphere, there are plenty of other bacteria living on a piece of meat that can. Most of these other bacteria are harmless to us, except that they seem to aid C. jejuni in some way. When Friederike Hilbert and his team from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna tried growing C. jejuni in conjunction with a variety of other microbes, they found that some combinations drastically affected the C. jejuni lifespan. In particular, various strains of Pseudomonas allowed C. jejuni to survive while exposed to the open air for over 48 hours, giving the bugs plenty of time to infect someone.

Communities of microorganisms are turning out to be much more rich and complex than was previously thought. Understanding those interactions could lead to breakthroughs in treatments of a variety of illnesses, not least foodborn illnesses.