Game-Changing Bacteria Transmits Tuberculosis Through the Skin

Although multiple bacteria in the Mycobacterium species can cause tuberculosis (TB), the main culprit is Mycobacterium tuberculosis. But now, a collaborative team has identified a new bacteria that can cause the lung disease.

Although multiple bacteria in the Mycobacterium species can cause tuberculosis (TB), the main culprit is Mycobacterium tuberculosis. But now, a collaborative team has identified a new bacteria that can cause the lung disease; and not only that, but the new bacteria can be transmitted through the skin and nose.

“This is a game changer. We have known about this human and animal pathogen, TB, since ancient times, and it has always been considered something that is transmitted through oral or aerosol exposure,” lead author Kathleen Alexander, DVM, PhD, a professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech, said in a news release.

This research began back in 2000, when Alexander was working as a government veterinarian in Botswana (located directly north of South Africa). When a sick banded mongoose died, she discovered it was due to the TB pathogen Mycobacterium mungi — which is closely related to the TB bacteria that infects humans. For 15 years, Alexander worked to uncover how the infection was contracted by other banded mongooses spanning from Northern Botswana to Northern Zimbabwe.

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“It was clear they weren’t eating or breathing it into their lungs. We looked places where you would expect exposure, but could not find any evidence of the pathogen,” Alexander explained. “We looked everywhere. Finally, I checked the anal glands and that is where it was hiding.”

It turns out the TB was transmitted between animals through scent marking — think about dogs, for example – and social communication, as detailed in mBio.

“We have found that this species of TB is transmitted environmentally through urine and anal gland secretions used in olfactory communication, infecting mongoose through injuries in the skin and nose. This completely changes our understanding of the potential mechanisms for TB transmission,” Alexander continued.

But the research is far from over; Alexander plans to push for more answers, and analyzing the differences between this TB and human TB is a good place to start.

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