Microbial missing link could block disease
An old man who had impaled his hand on a branch after cutting down a dead tree, became instrumental in the discovery of a new bug that could potentially block transmission of disease by insects and also protect crops.
On Oct 15, 2010, 71-year-old Thomas Fritz, a retired inventor, engineer and volunteer fire fighter, cut down a dead, 10-foot-tall crab apple tree outside his home near Evansville, Indiana.
A former emergency medical technician, Fritz dressed the wound, which became swollen. Then he waited for a scheduled visit with his doctor a few days later. By then, a cyst formed at the wound site, the journal Pubic Library of Science Genetics reported.
The doctor put Fritz on an antibiotic after sending a sample of the cyst to a lab. The pain and swelling persisted and the wound became abscessed, according to an Utah University statement.
About five weeks after the accident, an orthopaedic surgeon removed several pieces of bark from Fritz's wound, which finally healed without further incident.
Only later did Fritz find out that his infected wound contained a previously unknown bacterium which scientists called the new strain human Sodalis or HS; it's related to Sodalis, a genus of bacteria that lives symbiotically inside insects' guts.
"Symbiotic interactions between micro organisms and insects are common, and biologists suspect that they're an important driver of biological diversification," said Matt Kane, program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research.
"But how such symbioses came to be is often a mystery," Kane said.
"This particular story has a happy ending, but also an interesting one, because researchers used it to gain insight into how insects and microbes can form symbiotic partnerships in the first place."
As in the case of the crab apple tree, "there are bacteria in the environment that form symbiotic relationships with insects," says University of Utah biologist Kelly Oakeson, the study's lead co-author.
"This is the first time such a bacterium has been found and studied."
Additional co-authors of the paper are Maria Gutin, Arthur Pontes, Diane Dunn, Andrew von Niederhausern and Robert Weiss, all of the University of Utah.