Living Columns & Blogs

Fighting one of the Four Horsemen

PULLMAN -- If you cut me off from food for three days, I’d be fine. My body would burnthe natural insulation I carry, but not much would change except that I’d bea bit grumpier.

But if you cut off nutrition from malnourished children for three days, theconsequences are far more severe. Unlike me, poor kids don’t have thereserves to deal with food deprivation. That’s why many millions of childrenin the developing world die each year from dysentery.

I can only imagine the heartache of parents watching their young child fadeaway in their arms. It’s mind-boggling to think that many of these deathsare caused by something you and I would likely experience as nothing morethan the inconvenience of diarrhea.

Bacteria are responsible for many of the infections that kill malnourishedchildren. One particular killer is a fairly simple, spiral-shaped bacteriumthat lives naturally in the guts of poultry. In birds, the bacteria do noharm. The problem arises when bird waste enters the water supply or whentraces of the bacteria from the poultry gut contaminates the meat that issold at the market.

If everyone on the planet boiled their drinking water and avoided contactwith bird waste and raw poultry, the spiral bacteria wouldn’t make peopleill. But without the resources to sterilize water and keep strict hygieneroutines, the poorest people in the world are continually exposed todisease-causing bacteria.

The fourth horseman of the Apocalypse -- Death -- often results.

Earlier this fall, microbiology professor Michael Konkel of Washington StateUniversity visited a hospital in Calcutta on professional business. He sawthe results of such infections in young kids lying prostrate around him.

“The hospital was more like a gymnasium, with bed after bed after bed inlong rows,” he said.

Infections of many kinds are rampant in Calcutta, including cholera,diphtheria and tetanus, just to name a few. But the bacteria common in birdwaste are responsible for a number of the life-threatening infections inyoung kids.

“The National Institutes of Health sent me along with many others toCalcutta so that we could see for ourselves the conditions that are commonin developing countries,” Konkel said.

Like the rest of us, Konkel had read and heard about Calcutta for manyyears. That teaming but impoverished city was where Mother Teresa startedher work to care for some of the world's very poorest people. But seeingCalcutta up close was still a revelation.

“It’s hard to describe Calcutta. It is a place of extremes,” he said. “Inow understand the issues more clearly because I’ve been there.”

In places such as Calcutta, a successful prevention for a disease can’t bebased on a $10 vaccine. It has to be something that can be made availablequite cheaply.

In biology, cures for deadly plagues hinge on interrupting any one part ofthe long chain of details that leads to illness. The detailed ways thatorganic molecules interact are key to whether illness sets in andprogresses. As a geologist, it’s tough for me to follow all the biologicaldetails, but talking with Konkel gives me a clear view of the big picture.

Chickens, turkeys and other birds have a whole host of bacteria in theirguts. (So do we people, of course, although ours are different bacteria.)

One idea for short-circuiting the effects of the spiral bacteria is toreduce their natural populations in birds. There’s growing scientificevidence that we may be able to change the mix of bacteria in poultry bygiving them a dose of a bacteria commonly found in cheese and yogurt. Byfeeding poultry these beneficial bacteria, the set of bacteria in a bird’sgut is altered, resulting in a dramatic reduction in the number of thedeadly little spiral bacteria.

If we can decrease the bacteria in poultry in the U.S., we’ll also decreasethe incidence of Guillain-Barré syndrome for Americans. This fairly rare butpotentially fatal neurological disease is often triggered as a result of ourimmune response to the infection from undercooked poultry.

Both patience and enormous scientific expertise come into play inunderstanding how bacteria create disease and how we might be able to disarmthem effectively and cheaply.

I often end this column with a joke. But this geologist can only write aboutKonkel’s visit to Calcutta and his on-going research with sober respect andwarm wishes.

* E. Kirsten Peters is a native of the rural Northwest, but she was trained asa geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Questions about science or energy forfuture Rock Docs can be sent to This column is a service ofthe College of Sciences at Washington State University.