The Atlantic

When Gut Bacteria Betray Their Hosts

Decades after a deadly outbreak, a researcher found a key clue to its cause inside frozen microbes.
Source: CDC / Pete Wardell

For three decades, the deadly bacteria sat in cold storage. Normally, Enterococcus faecalis lives harmlessly in the human gut. One particular strain, however, caused a series of strangely persistent infections at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in the 1980s. The E. faecalis found its way into patients’ blood and grew resistant to antibiotics. Patients started to die.

The outbreak ran its course, but its origins remained a mystery. How do bacteria that live without causing distress in, then a doctor at the University of Wisconsin, thought to save samples from the 1980s outbreak.

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic7 min readPsychology
The Therapeutic Potential of Stanning
“Superhero therapy” encourages people to think like their favorite movie characters. It seems to work.
The Atlantic5 min readScience
The Worst Day in Earth’s History Contains an Ominous Warning
One of the planet’s most dramatic extinctions was caused in part by ocean acidification, which has become a problem in our own era.
The Atlantic5 min readPolitics
Parasite And The Curse Of Closeness
Bong Joon-ho’s film depicts a class system in which the most profound harms result from the relationships of interdependence between rich and poor.