Scientists from the Institute of Food Research (IFR) believe this could present a new way of stopping these deadly bacteria growing in food.
Food poisoning from Clostridium botulinum could occur when someone ate food contaminated with infected soil if the food had not been properly canned, preserved or cooked, the NHS warned.
Contaminated food produces a neurotoxin, which could lead anyone eating it to develop botulism, a rare but potentially fatal condition, IFR said.
‘Most deadly toxin known’
Dr Jason Brunt of the IFR said it was the most deadly toxin known to science.
“As more is understood of the complex germination systems in clostridia, it may be conceivable to formulate detailed strategies to interrupt this process,” he added.
“This would be of great benefit to help control pathogenic clostridia for the food industry.”
Botulinum spores only germinate in a suitable environment, for example in the presence of nutrients which they sense through specialised receptors, the IFR said. These receptors then trigger a chain of events that lead to the spore becoming viable.
Clostridium botulinum has had its genome sequenced, and by comparison with other bacteria it is possible to identify genes that look like they might be involved in the spore germination process.
The researchers at IFR, which is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, systematically turned off these candidate genes to see which were crucial for germination.
The research, published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, identified two sets of genes that Clostridium botulinum needs. They must act together for the spores to germinate in response to the correct stimulus, in this case the presence of a nutrient amino acid.
This allowed them to build a much better understanding of exactly how the spores germinate, Brunt claimed.
Stringent measures are taken by food manufacturers to stop this happening, and fortunately botulism outbreaks are now quite rare, he said.
The toxins produced by Clostridium botulinum attack the nervous system – nerves, brain and spinal cord – and cause paralysis that gradually spreads down the body from the head to the legs.
Fatal respiratory failure
If the condition is not treated quickly, the paralysis will eventually affect the muscles controlling breathing. This can cause fatal respiratory failure in up to one in every 10 people with the condition.
Other symptoms of botulism can include: blurred or double vision, drooping eyelids, and difficulty swallowing and speaking.
Meanwhile, the Food Manufacture Group will be hosting a one-day food safety conference on October 15.
The conference – Safe and legal food in a changing world – will look at emerging food safety challenges and the changing regulatory environment.
It will offer advice to companies on how they can avoid falling foul of major food safety incidents, which can prove very costly and damaging to company reputations.
For more information, or to book, click here.