James St. John, a lead researcher on the study. Image: EurekaAlert

Everything is dangerous. Sitting too much is bad, washing machines are infestation sites for E. coli, and now the simple act of sniffing can infect you with a bacteria that has a 50 percent chance of killing you.

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We’ve long known about the bacteria, which is called Burkholderia pseudomallei and leads to a disease called melioidosis found in southeast Asia and Australia. But until this week’s findings, published in the journal Immunity and Society, we didn’t know that how people contracted it. By studying mice, scientists found that the bacteria is transmitted from the nose to the brain stem to the spinal cord in as little as 24 hours.

“Imagine walking around and you sniff it up from the soil and the next day you’ve got this bacteria in your brain and damaging the spinal cord,” said James St John, who is head of the Clem Jones Centre for Neurobiology and Stem Cell Research at Griffith University. Griffith, along with Bond University, collaborated on the study.

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Even better, once you made that decisive sniff, you might not know it’s there for years and years. The longest-known incubation period for the bacteria is 62 years. In that extraordinary case, one man contacted the bacteria after being taken as prisoner of war by the Japanese in World War II, and had no idea for the next six decades.

“It could just be sitting there waiting for an opportune moment, or it could just be doing small incremental damage over a lifetime. You could lose the function in your brain incrementally,” continued elite-level fearmonger St. John, who added that the study’s results were interesting because it showed that other bacteria could also use this pathway. Great news, for science! Also, he thinks the bacteria could be used as a bioweapon, which is an interesting development for science, but terrifying for us.

Melioidosis kills about 89,000 people a year with symptoms such as fever, bone pain, and abscesses in the liver. Nearly half the population in southeast Asia may have it, and the mortality rate is as high as 50 percent in places like Cambodia and northern Australia.

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The hopeful news is that, after scaring everyone, scientists are now studying ways they can stimulate cells near the bacteria to remove it from our spinal cords once we’ve been infected. Yes, please, let’s continue that line of work.

[American Society for Microbiology via EurekaAlert]