They didn’t call it facile, they called it difficile. Spore-forming bacteria are like the Jedi of the bacterial world. Sure they can be defeated, but it is no small undertaking.
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Why C. difficile Is So Hard To Get Rid Of
If you have been paying attention to the news recently in Canada you have probably heard about outbreaks of Clostridium difficile, or C. difficile. You have probably asked yourself, “Self? How could it be so hard to just do some thorough cleaning in these hospitals to kill off this pesky bacterium? I can easily disinfect my kitchen from E. coli, so why don’t these people just get out the old elbow grease and get to work?” If it were only that easy…
You have probably heard of some of C. difficile’s relatives: C. botulinum (botulism) and C. tetani (tetanus). Clostridium spp. (spp. is the sciency way of saying species) are what microbiologists refer to as spore-formers. The endospores formed are a fascinating (to me) and possibly scary (to some) method of survival.
What Are Endospores?
Endospores are a protection against extinction employed by some bacteria. These spores should not be confused with the spores formed by fungi as a means of reproduction. Spore-forming bacteria form a single spore. These spores are highly resistant to heat, drying, acids, bases, some disinfectants and even some radiation. They are formed specifically to survive unfavourable conditions that threaten the existence of the bacteria in question. Some endospores are capable of surviving over 10,000 years and claims have been made that some have survived over 25 million years in amber. Yes, I just said 25 million years!
To put things as simply as possible what happens is this…
When the bacteria lacks the nutrients it needs to eat and live the DNA is covered by a number of protective shells to form what is called the core. These protective shells act as a barrier to anything that might harm the DNA. When the endospore is returned to favourable conditions for survival a process called germination occurs and the bacterial cell returns to normal.
It is important to note that endospores are essentially dormant. They cannot reproduce. They can just pretty much sit there and survive.
Are We All Dead?
In case I have induced a panic attack that has you quoting Wash from Serenity saying, “Oh god, oh god we’re all going to die.” Relax. Take deep breaths. Think about it. You are alive. People have lived and survived for a long time and the bacteria have not won…yet (just kidding!). Although endospores are hard to kill it does not mean they are invincible. They are just harder to kill.
You can’t just pull out your basic household cleaner and wash a surface and expect to kill an endospore. Not gonna happen. In the case of C. difficile you need to use a sodium hypochlorite (bleach) based cleaner. I am not telling you to start scrubbing your house with bleach. Do you currently have a C. difficile outbreak in your home? So why would you even think that?
As usual the only thing I recommend for daily life is to wash your hands after going to the bathroom and before preparing and eating food. DUH! If you aren’t already doing this…um, I don’t want to know about it and I probably don’t want to know you either. If you are wondering how a basic hand washing with regular soap is going to help against this super bacteria all you really need to know is that soap allows you to remove (not kill) the bacteria. By doing this you cannot ingest it.
Obviously all of this is very basic information. If you want more detailed information consult research papers published in accredited science publications such as The Lancet or The New England Journal of Medicine. These articles are peer reviewed and receive a high degree of scrutiny before being published. Do not use Wikipedia!!!
Lastly and most importantly: wash your hands! Seriously!
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Note from the Editor: Adam is our resident mad scientist. While pursuing a doctorate — which frankly just sounds like too much work to me — he may find time to explain more of this “sciency” world to us. The Ministry of Tourism, however, does not find this as entertaining as we do.