MSN just posted an article to the front page of their website proclaiming “Vials of E. coli found in Ark. apartment” where, as the headline suggests, someone has some laboratory cultured E. coli vials in their refrigerator and left them there when they moved out.
I find the reactions to this article very interesting. People are claiming bio-terrorism and saying that the workers should wear biohazard suits and all this nonsense… Now, let me tell you something: I bet you $10 I could find E. coli in your own apartment/house/abode. If I were keen, I bet I could find it on your body (I will decline the opportunity though, thank you). So, are you a dirty bioterrorist too? Well, you may be a little dirty but the already overcrowded prisons probably won’t taking you in today for these crimes. And your paltry bioterrorist attempts could be killed with a little bit of bleach too.
E. coli is horribly misunderstood by the general public. We hear that it has killed a couple of people and outbreaks force us to throw out our otherwise perfect vegetables, and all of a sudden E. coli is an evil villain. (Hey, I’ve heard people die from dihydrogen monoxide sometimes too… we should probably wipe out that and E. coli both, right?) Thing is though, that without it, we wouldn’t survive! It is one of the bacteria that lives in our guts and actually helps protect us from the real bad pathogens! Most of the time when we talk about an E. coli outbreak, the fact is that the presence of E. coli, which is a pretty sturdy little booger outside of the human body, often just indicates to us that the really bad bacteria are likely to be out there. Yes, some strains of E. coli can be deadly – usually only if you are immuno-compromised in some way or the other, but most E. coli strains are harmless.
Escherichia coli is actually an amazing bacteria for scientists because it is easy to culture, split and study. Because it lives for a decent amount of time outside of the gut and it is so easy to culture, we are able to do simple tests on many water bodies to see if they are contaminated with human or mammal waste. If we didn’t have E. coli, we would be forced to do complicated cultures at specific temperatures in labs to find the same information… instead, I can grow the E. coli cultures in my bedroom and tell you within 48 hours whether or not a water source is going to cause you intestinal distress if you drink it.
Anyway, if these people with the 25 vials in their fridge are bioterrorists, then I could probably be proclaimed a national hero for reporting a couple hundred bioterrorists with massive stockpiles of not only wild E. coli, but also other (actually) harmful fecal pathogens that has been proven to be entering directly into our water supplies. And unlike the E. coli in the 25 vials in the fridge, the ones in our water are actually of concern to the general public. MSNBC, call me. We’ll talk about some front page news worthy E. coli contamination!