Saturday, March 01, 2008

E. coli O157:H7 - The Tinfoil Hat View

For hundreds of thousands of years the tiny little bacterium, E. coli, was our friend. It had carved a little niche for itself in our collective guts. Each human being - and all warm blooded animals - throughout history was host to millions of generations of the little guys. So long is our history with these critters that we really can't live without them. They are part of us.

At one time E. coli was considered a harmless bacteria.

That is, it was before 1982.

Since 1982 there have been 73,000 cases of infection and 60 deaths per year in the United States.

What was so special about 1982? Why did E. coli turn bad on us?

The particular strain of E. coli (noted in the title of this discussion) that caused the 1982 outbreak had only been seen once before, in a sick patient, in 1975. Before 1982, E. coli O157:H7 was considered "rare".

Where did it come from? Go back to 1972, the year the first successful recombinant DNA experiments were performed.

Back then researchers focused on E. coli because it was a bacteria that was well known and well docmented. There were no "rare strains". And it had structures known as plasmids which contained DNA and which were easier to tinker with than the microbe's main chromosomal DNA. This was a simpler time, and the method used in the experiments was commonly referred to as the "shotgun" approach. Foreign DNA was blasted into the plasmids in a random way, the microbes were cultured, and observed for changes.

And then of course when they were done with that batch they threw them into the trash and did another round of experiments.

The use of plasmids is a smoking gun:

"E. coli O157:H7 serotypes are closely related, descended from a common ancestor, divergent in plasmid content more than chromosomal content..."

Do you see where this is going? I'll spell it out:
  • 1972 - The first Recombinant DNA experiments are performed
  • 1975 - E. coli O157:H7 shows up for the first time
  • 1982 - E. coli O157:H7 starts killing people Big Time
Bringing us to the present with 70,000 cases per year (not to mention contributing to the millions of pounds of beef being recalled in the past year alone - and don't get me started on downers).

Granted, there are other factors involved, such as the Reagan-era slashing of the USDA budget (which drastically reduced the number of USDA meat inspectors in the field), the scourge of factory farming, and the rise of evil corporations (I haven't mentioned ConAgra - until just now) but it's astounding that no one, not even the tinfoil hat crowd, has ever investigated the link to the recombinant DNA experiments of the 1970s.

No comments:

Post a Comment