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Bacteria, Viruses, and Protists

Bacteria Basics

How dangerous is the bacterium Clostridium botulinum?

The bacterium Clostridium botulinum is very dangerous—resulting in a toxin called botulinum that is considered to be the most acutely toxic substance known. It can grow in food products, producing botulinum (the condition is called botulism) so potent that one gram of this toxin can kill fourteen million adults! This bacterium can withstand boiling water (212°F or 100°C), but is killed in five minutes at a temperature of 248°F (120°C). This tolerance makes Clostridium botulinum a serious concern for people who preserve vegetables and fruits at home.

In particular, if the home canning process is not done properly, this bacterium will grow in the anaerobic conditions of the sealed container, creating an extremely poisonous food. The toxin is produced when the endospores of Clostridium botulinum germinate in poorly prepared canned goods—such as a leaking seal around the rim of the jar. That is why no one should ever eat food from a can that appears swollen or a can lid that is not depressed in the middle (or if the lid is easily pulled from up from the jar). More often than not, this is a sign that the can has become filled with gas released during germination of the bacteria. Consuming food from a can containing endospores that have undergone germination can lead to nerve paralysis, severe vomiting, and even death. Two major antiserums have been developed for botulism, but their effectiveness depends on how much is ingested and how long the toxin has been in the body.



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