Salmonella is a nasty little bacterium, and unfortunately, many of us may be encountering it this summer in undercooked chicken at cookouts, improperly handled potato salad and other seemingly innocent foods. 1.2 million people in the United States develop salmonella infections annually, and around 450 of them die from it. Researchers have been tracking salmonella outbreaks and behavior since 1968, and they’ve constructed an amazing map of salmonella subtypes, learning a great deal about the genetics and behavior of the bacterium from the proteins found on its surface. Now, researchers have found an interesting way to hit back at this notorious bacterium: Starve it out.
Historically, cases of salmonellosis have been treated by recommending fluids and rest first, escalating to antibiotics if necessary. The problem with antibiotics, though, is that they wipe out beneficial gut bacteria along with the bad. Patients can experience ongoing gastrointestinal problems as a result, which adds to the recovery time. Furthermore, growing concerns about antibiotic use and the growth of antibiotic resistance are pushing researchers to consider alternative treatments to ensure that when antibiotics are absolutely necessary, they’ll work effectively.
To the surprise of researchers, while salmonella seems omnipresent, it’s actually an extremely picky eater once it gets inside the patient. It relies heavily on just one nutrient: fructose-asparagine (F-Asn). If it doesn’t have access to this nutrient, it’s extremely weakened (much like you after a bad macaroni salad and a day in the bathroom). Therein lies a possible key to treating salmonella more effectively, because the researchers believe that this particular dietary taste is rather specific, and no other organisms depend on F-Asn in the same way salmonella does. That means that if they could find a way to eliminate the compound in the gut, it would wipe out a salmonella infection, while leaving beneficial gut flora untouched.
For patients, that’s a good deal, because many people suffer through the bacterial infection to avoid damaging the delicate balance of intestinal flora that keeps them digesting food happily and healthily. Patients who end up needing medication also wouldn’t need followup treatment with medications designed to help them rebuild their gut flora, like probiotics, because their bacterial friends would be intact. It’s also good for doctors, because it could potentially give them a new line of go-to medications to treat patients with severe salmonella infections, leaving antibiotics on the shelf for other purposes.
This doesn’t mean you should jump out and start guzzling down warm potato salad tomorrow. The research provides an opportunity for drug development, but it could take years for something to hit the market. And even when it does, doctors would still need to be careful with it, because bacteria are infamous for their ability to rapidly adapt and mutate. In a world where bacteria can quickly pick up new tricks, doctors would want to be careful about encouraging salmonella to broaden its palate, because that could be disastrous.
For now, though, research on F-Asn looks promising, and it could offer some relief for those afflicted by this highly unpleasant bacterial infection sometime in the future. Of course, it’s always a good idea to follow food safety guidelines to discourage bacteria from camping out on your plate in the first place.
Photo credit: NIAID