Science: Campylobacter uses other microorganisms as a Trojan Horse to spread infection

Photo by Lassi Kurkijärvi | CC BY-NC 2.0

The Trojan Horse is a classic legend. Warring against the city of Troy, the ancient Greeks feigned surrender, leaving a peace offering of a giant wooden horse at the city gates. A force of soldiers was hiding inside the horse, and at night they slipped out and defeated their enemy.

The strategy worked for the ancient Greeks, and guess what? It works for bacteria too.

New research from London’s Kingston University shows that the pathogenic bacteria Campylobacter can multiply and spread inside amoebae, treating the other microorganism as a kind of Trojan Horse. The scientists found that Campylobacter, which is associated with food poisoning from undercooked poultry, can infiltrate amoebae. There, it multiplies, all the while enjoying protection from the outside environment — an essential factor, because the bacteria is very sensitive to the environment.

“Establishing that Campylobacter can multiply inside its amoebic hosts is important, as they often exist in the same environments — such as in drinking water for chickens on poultry farms — which could increase the risk of infection,” said Ana Vieira, lead author of the study.

The findings have implications for animal producers, whose biosecurity practices need to be stringent in order to take out amoebae and other microorganisms.

“The amoeba may act as a protective host against some disinfection procedures, so the findings could be used to explore new ways of helping prevent the bacteria’s spread by breaking the chain of infection,” said Vieira.

The scientists used a process called the gentamycin protection assay to assess the bacteria’s ability to invade cells. They confirmed that Campylobacter could survive and multiply while inside the amoeba’s protective walls, in part thanks to a toxin-expelling system that the bacteria uses. Once multiplied in high enough numbers, Campylobacter leaves the amoeba, causing sickness wherever it ends up.

Knowing what allows the bacteria to survive makes it easier to develop weapons to attack it with. The study authors identified the bacteria’s toxin-expelling pump as a potential target for future antibacterial drugs.

“Targeting the bacterial factors required for survival within amoebae could help to prevent Campylobacter from spreading in the environment and colonizing chickens,” said Andrey Karlyshev, a supervisor on the study. “This in turn could help reduce its ability to enter the food chain and cause disease in humans.”

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