My Favorite Bacterial Pathogen

So, the title might sound a little strange: what weird and twisted person has a favorite bacterium?  Me, your friendly microbiologist!  The recent news stories regarding the fatal listeriosis outbreak linked to cantaloupe got me to thinking of my favorite class in school: Bacterial Pathogens. Bacteria that cause disease are called pathogenic bacteria, just so you know.  What a fun class.  No, really, it was very interesting and, if
you don’t think about things too much, like I don’t, it’s not too scary.  After reflecting on the dozen or so bugs (that’s what microbiologists call bacteria, which I find amusing) we studied in class, I determined Listeria monocytogenes was not my favorite bug, but it is pretty interesting.

Listeria monocytogenes (Listy) is the bug which causes listeriosis, one of the nastiest pathogens known with roughly 20 – 30% of infections resulting in death. In my opinion, those are not good odds.  Listy, this little discussed bug, causes more deaths than Salmonella and Clostridium, two of the more common food borne pathogens.  Listy is responsible for about 2500 illnesses a year and 500 deaths in the United States alone.  One of Listy’s sneakiest attributes is the fact it can keep replicating in temperatures close to freezing, so the trick of putting things in the fridge to slow down growth doesn’t
work.  Listy just keeps replicating to keep warm.  Once Listy has taken over, you are blessed with: Influenza like symptoms of persistent fever, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.  Sounds like alcohol poisoning.  Ah, good times.

Not to knock Listy, but after reading about the conditions at the farm behind the cantaloupe outbreak, I thought of three things: 1. Why did it have to be a fruit I liked, huh?  2. Have I ever heard of cantaloupe being a concern for Listy? I knew about hot dogs and unpasteurized milk and cheese, which reminds me, note to all: unpasteurized
anything = bad, trust your friendly microbiologist.  Don’t believe those people, they are trying to sell you a product.  3.  I wonder how my microbiology teacher from Texas
State University is doing.  Then, I thought about my favorite bugs: Listeria monocytogenes is a scary little bug, but Pseudomonas aeruginosa is much more
intriguing and common.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa (Soody) is a bug found in soil, water, on the skin and on most manmade environments.  Basically, Soody is found everywhere you are going to be.  It especially likes to hang out at hospitals, skulking around medical equipment, a favorite being the catheter.  Yikes, my legs just slammed shut!  Soody is an opportunistic pathogen, which means it waits around until you start feeling bad, and then it jumps on you.  Soody usually infects the pulmonary tract, urinary tract, burns, and wounds, basically anywhere there is an opening.  Soody is the number one leading cause of hospital acquired infections, one of the many reasons I won’t visit you in the hospital without full doomsday gear.

I read somewhere Soody infects close to 700 million people a year, but I must have
misread the number because that is a whole bunch of people.  It is very common and seems to be everywhere, I feel stuff crawling on me now, but Soody isn’t my favorite bug.  Listeria monocytogenes is a scary little bug, Pseudomonas aeruginosa is more intriguing and common, but Streptococcus pyogenes is my favorite bug so far.

Streptococcus pyogenes (Gene – no relation to my brother-in-law, although they share some of the same qualities) is a clever little, constantly evolving bug that has wreaked havoc for as long as time.  I first read about Gene in school when we discussed the problems of disease in the Civil War (again, I’m talking about the bug here, not my BIL, I’m pretty sure Gene the man was not involved in the Civil War).  Gene, along with gangrene and Staphylococcus aureus, caused more death than actual warfare.  Gene is also one of the scary ‘flesh-eating’ bacteria.  Who doesn’t like a good zombie story?
Gene, when introduced to a wound, kills tissue by interfering with the normal blood flow, breaking down tissue causing quick dispersal of the bug to connecting tissue.  If not treated immediately, Gene will spread everywhere, leading to death, usually caused by
shock.

The really amazing thing about Gene is it has different strains of itself that release
different toxins which cause different diseases.  So one type of Gene found in the throat can cause Strep throat and another Scarlet Fever.  A skin Gene can cause Impetigo (a highly contagious skin infection) and another, through a wound, the horror book inspired skin eater.  I have had Strep throat many times in my life and I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was my second introduction to Gene.  My first was through my Grandmother.

For the record, I’m probably drawn to Gene more, not because it’s impressive, but
because it allowed my maternal Grandmother (Granny) to scare the bejeezus out of me as a young child.  Granny had Scarlet Fever when she was 30 and lost all her teeth as a result.  I did not realize, at the age of 3 or 4, that some people had fake teeth, having just gotten all of mine.  When my brother and I would annoy Granny, she stuck her teeth out at us, causing me unknown number of night terrors and, to this day, an uncomfortable feeling around people who do not have all of their teeth.  I grew out of reacting to this form of terror from Granny in my teens and she stopped doing it, but I
think the real reason she stopped was because ‘they’ developed better glue and
it was too much work to pry them loose.  She is that mean.  So really, in a
roundabout weird kinda way, Gene is my favorite bug because it has impacted my life
the most, impacted my life through a mean, toothless, wrinkly, blue haired old
lady who lives in Everett, Washington.  I hope she doesn’t read anymore.

I don’t mean to joke at anyone’s expensive…if you’ve had any of the above diseases, or lost someone to a disease, I am truly sorry for your loss.  I just can’t help my admiration for such a worthy opponent.  An unseen, deadly force hiding everywhere, waiting for us to stumble, just a little, and open up the door of opportunity for them to slither through.  On that note, it’s dinner time!  Seriously, don’t think about it too much, clear your mind like I do…oh, look…squirrel!

jenn

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “My Favorite Bacterial Pathogen

  1. Bonnie

    The science nerd in me loves this! ….and I had to point out that Listy is named after my great great uncle, Joseph Lister who discovered antiseptic technique. 🙂

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