It's a funny sounding name for bacteria. But there's nothing funny
about a Campylobacter infection.
Symptoms include blood in the stool, fever, and abdominal pain, which
may be mistaken for appendicitis or ulcerative Crohn's disease.
Though infection usually lasts only a few days, that may be long enough
to cause meningitis in newborns or temporary arthritis in children.
Older individuals are also among the most vulnerable to infection,
especially if they have a chronic illness or weak immune system. In
some cases, the bacteria may get into their bloodstream and affect a
variety of organs or tissues, causing an unusual form of arthritis or
a nervous system disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Campylobacters are found everywhere in nature, even in house
pets, who may carry the bacteria without harm to themselves. Campylobacter
can also be found in farm animals, especially poultry. (See article
Illness from Campylobacter is a serious human health problem
worldwide. It is also a critical problem for U.S. Department of Agriculture
agencies concerned with food safety, animal health, and international
Consequently, this microbe is a key target of the USDA Agricultural
Research Service's Food Safety Program. ARS experts at several laboratories
from coast to coast are studying various aspects of the bacteria. Their
work is uncovering answers to many key questions about this pathogen,
such as: Where does it live? How does it survive and grow in animals
and in foods? What genes and what proteins (the products of those genes)
enable it to succeed as a pathogen? Why are some Campylobacters
more pathogenic than others?
Until recently, we thought there were only a few species of Campylobacter
that were important to investigate, monitor, and control. It now appears
we might have been wrong. Scientists and public health officials worldwide
are discovering that there are other, little-known species that warrant
our close attention. Even though these species have only recently attracted
our attention, we do notat this timethink they are of recent
So far, no laboratory has yet developed a best method or "gold
standard" to isolate and identify Campylobacters. A reliable,
rapid, affordable procedure would help coordinate the efforts of scientists
Also missing is a multiple-species, single-pass test that would provide
a fast, inexpensive way to identify all species of Campylobacter
in a given sample from a patient, for example. Such a test would greatly
help public health agencies responsible for monitoring Campylobacter
infections in humans and for tracking the infections to their source,
whether it is a farm or a food-processing plant.
To address and correct the limitations of today's methods for isolating
and identifying the array of Campylobacters, ARS scientists are
working with researchers here and abroad to develop a gold-standard
test. Such technology is a goal of Campycheck, a novel collaboration
of several European nations, South Africa, and the United States. We
are also collaborating with the national public health agencies of Canada
and Iceland to speed the process of discovery about this microbe.
There's more. We are determining the prevalence of Campylobacter
species and strains in food and water. In corporate efforts with The
Institute for Genomic Research and with Agencourt Bioscience Corporation,
we are determining the structure of all the genes in certain Campylobacters.
We are preparing these findings for publication; some genomic details
are already posted on the World Wide Web for use by researchers everywhere.
Our collaborations are timely and appropriate. Food safety is, unavoidably,
a global issue. Food produced today in another country can be on your
table tomorrow. ARS research on Campylobacters is an example
of the agency's efforts to make America's already safe food even safer.
At the same time, our discoveries are helping people in other countries,
just as the discoveries at labs beyond our borders are helping us. To
quell Campylobacter does, indeed, take a planet.
James A. Lindsay
ARS National Program Leader
"Forum" was published in the October
2004 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.