Botulism may not be at the top of your list of household known diseases, but it is a rare and very serious illness. Botulinium toxin is one of the most powerful known toxins: about one microgram is lethal to humans. Only about 110 people get it every year in the United States. Since it is rare, all forms can be deadly and are considered to be medical emergencies. The cause is a neurotoxin made by a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum). This toxin travels through the blood to attach to the nerves that control muscles. From several hours to a week after eating contaminated food, the person may get sick. Medical descriptions of botulism traces as far back in history as ancient Rome and Greece civilzations. However, the relationship between contaminated food and botulism wasn't defined until the late 1700s. In 1793 a German physician, Justinius Kerner, realized that a substance in spoiled sausages, which he called wurstgift (German for sausage poison), caused botulism. The toxin's origin and identity remained mysterious until Emile von Ermengem, a Belgian professor, isolated Clostridium botulinum in 1895 and identified it as the poison source. Clostridium botulinum is a rod-shaped microorganism. The rod shape (bacillum) makes the cell prokaryotic. Some species of prokaryotes form endospores (thick-walled, dehydrated structures that can resist extreme dryness and very high temperatures for long periods of time). Clostridium botulinum is an obligate anaerobe, meaning that oxygen is poisonous to the cells. C. botulinum is only able to produce the neurotoxin during sporulation, which can only happen in an anaerobic (lacking oxygen) environment. However, trace amount of oxygen is allowed due to the enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD) which is an important antioxidant defense in nearly all cells exposed to oxygen. Today in the laboratory, Clostridium botulinum can be contained and studied. The microorganism is usually isolated in an anaerobic...
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