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Campylobacter is smarter than we thought: scientists

By Laurence Gibbons , 31-Jan-2013
Last updated on 31-Jan-2013 at 13:14 GMT

Campylobacter is smarter than scientists thought as it is able to alter its “swimming behaviour” inside human bodies to find food, according to new research by scientists at the Institute of Food Research (IFR).

IFR research scientist Mark Reuter said the research had shown campylobacter to be very intelligent and able to move towards environments in which it knows it can survive.

“The bug is smarter than we thought, and cannot be underestimated. It has the ability to recognise its environment and modify its movement in response to move to where it wants to be,” said Reuter. “It will also change its behaviour and swim away from things it doesn’t like.”

Campylobacter balances information it receives either to seek locations that provide it with more nutrition, or to find places where respiration is more efficient. The desire to feed, however, is the biggest driver for campylobacter, the research found.

Undercooked poultry

When people get infected, the bacteria need to find their way from the source of contamination, usually undercooked poultry, to the cells lining the gut. In the process, campylobacter must find enough food to sustain itself as well as a hospitable environment in which to multiply.

Unlike other food poisoning bugs, such as E.coli or salmonella, campylobacter have a whole range of ways of detecting different chemicals in their immediate environment, and can alter the way they move through the body. Reuter describes this as the “sat nav” of the bacterial world.

“We know campylobacter can swim, and that is very important for causing disease, but aimless swimming isn’t efficient,” says Reuter. “The bugs need to know where they want to go.

“Discovering how these ‘sat nav’ systems help target the bug to the site of infection may help prevent future disease, and may be relevant to other foodborne and gut-associated pathogens.”

Foodborne pathogens

Reuter added that campylobacter has the ability to sense if the host body is hungry and will move towards the gut in preparation for new food on which to latch.

Chicken is responsible for 60–80% of cases of the infection campylobacteriosis in the UK. The campylobacter bug is the major cause of food poisoning in the UK, with over 371,000 incidents a year. It is a top priority for the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which aims to reduce cases by 10% by 2015.

The new research from the IFR was welcomed by the FSA. A spokesman said it would help to improve the understanding of campylobacter in the food chain and how it might be controlled. This is important in informing the FSA’s strategy, which is currently focused on reducing the contamination of poultry carcases with campylobacter.

Reuter said: “A 10% reduction is possible because other countries have done it. This research gives a new personality to the bug, and needs to be taken on board by the industry. Manufacturers should look at what they can do to prevent the spread of campylobacter, not just look to scientists for a magic bullet against campylobacter.”

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