Vibrio parahaemolyticus: researchers at the University of Exeter discover how it can go to sleep and then “wake up”

Scientists have discovered how bacteria commonly responsible for stomach upsets associated with seafood can go dormant and then “wake up”.

Vibrio parahaemolyticus is a marine bacteria that can cause gastroenteritis in humans when eaten in raw or undercooked shellfish like oysters and mussels.

Image / University of Exeter Bioimaging Unit

Some of these bacteria are able to become dormant under poor growing conditions such as cold temperatures – and may remain in this state of hibernation for long periods of time before resuscitating.

Scientists from the University of Exeter have identified a population of these dormant cells that wake up better and have discovered an enzyme involved in this process of awakening.

“Most of these bacteria die when they encounter poor growing conditions, but we have identified subpopulations of bacteria that are able to remain dormant for long periods of time,” said lead author Dr Sariqa Wagley of the University of Exeter.

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“We have found that this population has a better ability to recover when conditions improve.

“Our tests show that when these dormant bacteria are reactivated, they are just as virulent and capable of causing disease. “

The findings could have implications for seafood safety, as dormant cells are not detectable using routine microbiological screening tests and the true bacterial load (amount of bacteria) could be underestimated.

“When they go dormant, these bacteria change shape, reduce respiratory activity, and don’t grow like healthy bacteria on agar plates used in standard lab tests, so they’re much more difficult to detect,” he said. explained Dr Wagley.

“Using a range of tools, we were able to find dormant bacteria in samples of seafood and laboratory cultures and examine their genetic content for clues as to how they might survive for many years. long periods.

“It’s important to note that thorough cooking kills bacteria in seafood.

“Our results can also help us predict the conditions dormant bacteria need to regenerate. “

Working with the seafood industry, the Exeter team identified a lactate dehydrogenase enzyme that breaks down lactic acid into pyruvate, a key part of several metabolic pathways (chemical reactions in a cell).

The results suggest that lactate dehydrogenase is essential for both maintaining bacterial dormancy and resuscitation to an active form.

Vibrio parahaemolyticus typically grows in warm, tropical marine environments, although Dr Wagley has said that due to rising sea temperatures in recent years it is now widespread in UK waters during the summer months.

During the winter, it goes undetected in the marine environment around the UK and is believed to die off due to the cold winter temperatures.

This study could explain how Vibrio parahaemolyticus is able to reappear in the environment during the summer.

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