by Piter Kehoma Boll
I already introduced three species of bacteria here, all of them free-living and/or friendly little ones. But we all know that many bacteria can be a real annoyance to us humans, and so it’s time to show some of those, right?
I decided to start with one that I thought to have living inside me some time ago (but it happened that I don’t), and this is the ill-tempered Helicobacter pylori, which as usual lacks a common name, but is commonly called H. pylori for short by doctors, so that’s how I’ll call it.
The most common place to find the H. pylori is in the stomach. It is estimated that more than half of the human population has this bacterium living in their gastrointestinal tract, but in most cases it does not affect your life at all. However, sometimes it can mess things up.
H. pylori is a 3-µm long bacterium with the shape of a twisted rod, hence the name Helicobacter, meaning “helix rod”. It also has a set of four to six flagella at one of its ends, which make it a very motile bacterium. The twisted shape, together with the flagella, is thought to be useful for H. pylori to penetrate the mucus lining the stomach. It does so to escape from the strongly acidic environment of the stomach, always penetrating towards a less acidic place, eventually reaching the stomach epithelium and sometimes even living inside the epithelial cells.
In order to avoid even more the acids, H. pylori produces large amounts of urease, an enzyme that digest the urea in the stomach, producing ammonia, which is toxic to humans. The presence of H. pylori in the stomach may lead to inflammation as an imune response of the host, which increases the chances of the mucous membranes of the stomach and the duodenum to be harmed by the strong acids, leading to gastritis and eventually ulcers.
The association between humans and H. pylori seem to be very old, possibly as old as the human species itself, as its origin was traced back to East Africa, the cradle of Homo sapiens. This bacterium is, therefore, an old friend and foe and it will likely continue with us for many many years in the future.
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Linz, B.; Balloux, F.; Moodley, Y. et al. (2007) An African origin for the intimate association between humans and Helicobacter pylori. Nature 445: 915–918. https://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature0556
Wikipedia. Helicobacter pylori. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helicobacter_pylori >. Access on August 5, 2017.