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Rare hairs may make this bug more toxic.

Rare hairs may make this bug more toxic

Vibrio vulnificus, the bacterium pictured here (magnified 25,000 times), inhabits warm seawater -- like that along the Gulf Coast of the United States. If allowed to enter the body, through open wounds or the ingestion of contaminated shelffish, it can cause blistering, tissue damage, even death. Despite its prevalence, however, it causes relatively few infections. Why? Electron microscopy by pathologists at the University of Texas Heatlh Science Center in Houston suggests the presence of filamentous appendages, like those pictured here, may distinguish the more virulent forms.

Rita M. Gander and Mark T. LaRocco found that 70 to 90 percent of the V. vulnificus populations isolated from human blood or wounds contained cells with the hair-like protrusions. By contrast, only 30 percent of the V. vulnificus cultures isolated from seawater, sediment and shallfish contained them. Moreover, even where the environmental isolates showed bacteria with the thread-like appendages, the proportion of such bacteria was far smaller than in cultures from infected humans.

Since several other bacteria, including E. coli, use similar appendages to anchor themselves to their host cells, the Texas researchers decided to look at the relative adherence properties of V. vulnificus from different sources. Their data, presented this week at the American Society for Microbiology annual meeting in Miami Beach, showed the bacterial strains isolated from human wounds were dramatically more likely to adhere to human epithelial cells than were the bacteria from seawater. This suggests the hair-like projections may help "establish infections in [humans] by promoting adherence to human cells," Gander says.
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Title Annotation:Vibrio vulnificus bacterium
Publication:Science News
Date:May 14, 1988
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