Harmless Gut Bacteria Can Evolve To Cause Life-threatening I
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During recent research, an international team of scientists has determined how harmless E. coli gut bacteria in chickens can easily pick up the genes needed in order to evolve and cause a life-threatening infection. The study, warns that such infections not only affect the poultry industry but could also potentially cross over to infect humans.

Avian pathogenic E. coli (APEC) is the most common infection in chickens reared for meat or eggs. It can lead to death in up to 20 percent of cases. The problem is made worse by increasing antibiotic resistance and infections also pose a risk of causing disease in humans.

The team of scientists, sequenced and analysed the whole genomes of E. coli bacteria found in healthy and infected chickens bred at commercial poultry farms to better understand why and how these normally innocuous bugs can turn deadly. They found there was no single gene responsible for switching a harmless bacterium into a pathogenic one, but rather that it could be caused by several combinations of a diverse group of genes.

Their results indicate that all bacteria in chicken intestines have the potential to pick up the genes they need to turn into a dangerous infection, through a process called horizontal gene transfer which enables bacteria to acquire new genetic material from other bacteria nearby. This can happen by scavenging DNA molecules from dead bacteria or by exchanging strands of DNA by having 'bacterial sex'.

The study authors stress the need to monitor strains that are most likely to become pathogenic so can treat them before they become dangerous. "We were surprised to find that it's not just a single strain that causes APEC, but any strain can potentially acquire the 'monster combination' of genes needed to turn bad," a researcher said.

Strains with the potential to turn pathogenic could be identified using a similar method to that used to detect variant strains of Covid19. After whole-genome sequencing, rapid PCR tests can be used to probe for specific genes that could lead to an APEC infection.