No one likes to be stabbed in the back by an old friend — especially one who has stayed the night in your home, eaten dinner with your family, and played with your children. One day you thought you knew this person — this trusted confidant — but the next, you barely recognize the foe that stands before you. This is precisely the case for colonies of Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria that lives inside the body, say researchers from Buffalo, New York.
What Is Pneumococcus and Why Is It Dangerous?
Streptococcus pneumoniae (a.k.a. pneumococcus) is a type of gram-negative bacteria that the World Health Organization calls “a major global public health problem.” Strangely, it can camp out inside a person’s nose and throat — harmlessly — for months on end. Then, the germs suddenly turn on their host — triggering painful earaches, meningitis, or even pneumonia. In 2000, the bacteria caused at least 14.5 million cases of serious illness and killed 826,000 children under five years old.
University of Buffalo Researchers Identify Bacterial Triggers
“We were interested in getting at the mechanism — why these bacteria would suddenly migrate from the throat to the middle ear, lungs, or bloodstream which are normally sterile,” explained University of Buffalo microbiologist Anders Hakansson. “We wanted to know why people get sick.”
According to Hakansson and colleagues, the bacteria builds up a small city on top of epithelial cells in the throat, lungs and body cavities. Researchers were able to recreate this typical buildup structure in the lab. They explained it as a full “ecosystem — with channels coming down for water and nutrients.”
However, everything changed when they added a pinch of flu virus. The presence of a virus causes the colony’s temperature to increase. Stress hormone norepinephrine, in turn, causes microbes to break away from the community. Increased concentrations of ATP energy molecules trigger gene activation inside the once innocuous bacteria.
PhD student Laura R. Marks explained, “When the outside environment changes following influenza infection, the pathogens are able to take advantage of this state of decreased immunity by altering their outer shell, essentially arming themselves with the proteins that allow them to penetrate into normally sterile areas of the body and successfully evade our immune defenses.”
What Benefit Does Bacteria Get Out Of Being So Bad?
Researchers were puzzled as to why this transition occurs, as it’s really not in the best interest of the bacteria to make its host sick and die. However, they suspect that the bacteria merely gets stuck in cul-de-sacs like the ear and lungs (think “beached whales”) as they search for a healthier place to set up shop. The good news is that 25 to 40% of young children and up to 15% of adults are colonized with the bacteria, but it doesn’t necessarily make us all sick. Getting vaccinated should also help build immunity against viral attacks that may trigger the bacteria’s “bad self.”
Tip: Are you worried about good bacteria going bad? Limit the amount of bad bacteria you come in contact with by disinfecting your footwear with a UV shoe sanitizer from SteriShoe. Buy now!