Exploring How The Common Elizabethkingia Bacteria Can Turn Deadly

Genomic Research On Pathogens Can Be A Powerful Public Health Tool
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Illustration by Scott Gordon and Kristian Knutsen; Elizabethkingia culture image via Wisconsin Department of Health Services and genetic code image via Stefano (CC BY-SA 2.0)

An international group of geneticists, epidemiologists and public health researchers based in Australia, France and the U.S. teamed up to study a pathogen after it caused a small but deadly outbreak of illnesses in Wisconsin. Elizabethkingia, a relatively common genus of bacteria that can be dangerous to people with weakened immune defenses, infected scores of people across a southeastern swath of the state in late 2015 and early 2016. Among this group of patients, 18 subsequently died, with one more possibly related death in Wisconsin and two other fatalities in Illinois and Michigan, respectively.

All victims of this outbreak were infected by the same strain of Elizabethkingia anophelis, one with a unique set of genetic characteristics. Researchers pursued a deeper understanding of the outbreak after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advanced Molecular Detection initiative released genomic data sourced from the organisms responsible for the infections. Starting with research conducted by the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene and Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the far-flung group of scientists were able to identify mutation patterns particular to the strain in question.

The researchers released their findings in a Nature article published in May 2017. While public health authorities have not identified the specific source of the Elizabethkingia strain that caused the outbreak, the Wisconsin members of the research team point to this investigation as an example of how genomic data can help provide better understanding of outbreaks caused by familiar and unfamiliar bacteria.

On the June 7, 2017, edition of Wisconsin Public Radio's Central Time, host Rob Ferrett spoke with WisContext associate editor Scott Gordon about the outbreak of Elizabethkingia infections and how researchers investigated its genetics to learn more about its origins.

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