Last year's German E. coli outbreak made headlines around the world in May and June as it sickened nearly 3,800 people and killed 50, distinguishing it as the single deadliest foodborne illness outbreak of all time. The outbreak was a dramatic entrance to the world stage for the microbe at the center of it all, a little-known strain of E. coli known as O104:H4, that caused German authorities facing a nation of overwhelmed hospitals to declare on May 22, "Clearly, we are faced with an unusual situation."
O104 managed to wreak such an unprecedented level of devastation in Germany thanks to evolutionary adaptations that combined the defensive traits of some harmless strains with the deadly traits of Shiga toxin-producing strains such as O157:H7. While most toxic strains predominantly affect the young and old, O104 infected otherwise-healthy adults with debilitating illnesses that not only hospitalized a greater proportion, but lasted an average of two weeks instead of one.
Now, team led by researchers at Michigan State University has determined that those defensive traits O104 picked up from its ancestors just might become its greatest weakness. The new research, published in the current edition of the journal PLoS ONE , proposes a possible avenue for weakening the virulent strain and -- if all goes according to theory -- preventing it from causing severe illnesses like those witnessed in Germany.