E. coli evade detection by going dormant

Researchers think they now know why a particularly virulent form of E. coli that swept through northern Germany last May was so hard to trace: The germs responsible eluded detection by going into a self-induced deep sleep.

Two new studies show that when stressed, E. coli can turn off most signs of life. That’s a problem for food-safety officials because their germ-screening techniques rely on germs reproducing to establish the presence of live bacteria.

Microbiologists look for life by attempting to culture — or grow — bacteria in nutrients. But near-comatose germs don’t reproduce, explains microbiologist James Oliver of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who did not take part in the new work. Such bacteria instead “become viable but nonculturable,” he says, “what we call VBNC.”

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