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The bacterium Escherichia coli can be a scientist’s best friend when it’s being used as a tool for biological research, but some strains of it are better known for their nasty effects on humans as a causative agent in food poisoning.

Infection with the O157:H7 strain of E. coli usually occurs after consumption of meat that has been contaminated by exposure to fecal matter, and the symptoms can range from diarrhea to blood cell loss, encephelopathy and kidney failure. The causative factor is Shiga toxin (Stx), a bacterially secreted compound that makes its way from the intestine into the bloodstream, and ultimately binds to target receptors on cells in the kidney and brain.

According to Hiroshi Ohno of the RIKEN Research Center for Allergy and Immunology in Yokohama, the acquisition of protection against O157:H7 appears to be also related to diet. “In 1996, we experienced an outbreak of O157:H7 in Sakai, Japan,” he says. “Epidemiologic research suggested that children with a history of breast-feeding were more resistant to O157:H7 infection than those with a formula-fed history.”

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