Worms on wheels: ‘most extreme’ Burkholderia mutant discovered

The “horrific” DNA modifications found in the nearby Beyene test tube petri dish are spread through the whole genome, scientists warn. The new Zambia strain is said to have 3,600 mutations and is 10,000 times more common than initially thought. Researchers believe it could allow dangerous parasites to survive for at least a year inside humans. Dr Raymond Gould, leader of the team that analysed the report, said the new additions may help explain why some animals such as deer already survive infections with the Burkholderia cobbleri superbug for longer than normal. The news emerged from scientists at the University of Edinburgh who collected the B. cobbleri parasite from a farmer and a consumer of Zambian beef. Once those samples were analysed, they used a sophisticated genomic approach to pick out the mutations.

Scientists say a new strain of the Burkholderia cobbleri superbug that has been passed on by monkeys from Botswana to Zambia is the “most extreme” mutation ever seen by scientists. The African endemic breed of B. cobbleri has been circulating freely in the cattle and goat trade in the southern African country since 2000. It is believed a necropsy conducted on a child in 2008 showed high levels of a version of the strain which was not previously found in animals. The tracing and tracing of victims in Zambia has revealed the strain is transmitted in clusters, while in goats it was found in mostly females. After a similar analysis was conducted in Botswana, experts found different mutations in both cows and goats.

Animals who carry the bacteria can potentially survive days inside human lungs and suck out vital minerals from the bloodstream. The Food Standards Agency warned consumers not to consume meat from Zambian domesticated animals such as cattle, goats, donkeys and zebra. A classic symptom is coughing that produces mucus and produces its own tissue with the bacteria, and in the lungs can cause breathing difficulties.

Despite evidence that cattle may remain infectious for a year, this, too, is new, with previous reports of longer infection periods. However, scientists are not entirely sure how it is passed on.

The minister in charge of animal health in Zambia, Mosese Mwanza, said the gene behind the new strain was found in imported beef, not locally produced beef, but it is not yet known how and why the bacteria was introduced.

Dr Rachel Stephens, senior molecular biologist with the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society, said: “This is the most severe mutation seen so far in this illness and presents a real threat to people in southern Africa.

“These new forms of Burkholderia cobbleri are likely to be more resistant to antibiotics than previous variants, so it is essential that anyone affected gets to a specialist as soon as possible. It is also concerning that people have the potential to spread this mutation in the wild. Our advice is that individuals need to be aware that these infections can be extremely serious.”

The Wolbachia bacteria, which are believed to be behind the superbug, are bacteria naturally inhabiting the cells of animals and humans, but infecting humans too. Wolbachia bacteria “love” to infect host cells, contributing to the number of colitis and aflatrosis cases in mammals. Wolbachia can make bacteria more resistant to antibiotics. Scientists believe that a population of mutant Wolbachia in its “startlingly rare form” has been present in the southern Africa since 2000.

It was initially thought that the bovine strain first appeared in Africa, likely in 2002 and it was thought that nearly all of the population of the other Wolbachia population in Zambia were the African breed, known as Kakolo and Masengwe.

However, further research from the University of Edinburgh found that the infection had occurred in B. cobbleri in both cattle and goats between 2004 and 2013.

B. cobbleri is more than 20 years old, but has long been recognised as a cause of human infection.

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