Pneumonia-causing bacterium disguises itself to escape detection: Research

By Margaret Munroe, Postmedia News

A common human pathogen is also a sort of microbial quick-change artist — mutating too fast for medicine to follow.

The bacterium that causes pneumonia, meningitis and ear infections can quickly and nimbly dodge the vaccines and antibiotics public health officials throw at it, according to an international research team.

They have documented how one particularly nasty strain of the bacterium skipped from Spain to Britain, Canada, the United States, and Vietnam, shuffling, mutating and swapping genes as it went.

About three-quarters of the microbe’s genome has turned over since 1984, the team reports in the journal Science on Friday.

It made more than 700 genetic changes, including 10 “capsule-switching events” that researchers liken to an enemy changing clothes to avoid detection.

“It really is an arms race,” said co-author Dr. Dylan Pillai, a medical microbiologist at the University of Toronto and the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion. 

To get a better sense of the tiny adversary, the researchers examined the microbe, Streptococcus pneumoniae, in detail as never before.

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