Scientists have discovered a new variant of the group of bacteria known to cause illnesses such as strep throat, pink eye and meningitis, but this new strain might be the most nefarious of them all: It's a flesh-eater.

The deadly bacteria, which could kill up to one in four patients that develop necrotising fasciitis from it, has likely been hiding in plain sight for decades, and it might have already gone global. Cases have been reported in places as far-reaching as Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, Sweden and France.

Researchers at Imperial College London, together with colleagues at Public Health England, first caught wind of the new bacteria after noticing a sharp rise in infections from 1998 to 2009 caused by a particular strain of Streptococcus bacteria called emm89. After sequencing the genomes of bacterial samples from patients, they noticed that a new strain of emm89 had emerged, and was responsible for the surge in cases.

The new strain is particularly unusual due to two unique features: It has completely lost its outer capsule, and it produces more toxin, according to a press release by Imperial College London.

Scientists are particularly perplexed by the strain's lack of an outer capsule, since the typical Streptococcus requires its outer shell in order to survive and transmit disease. Not only does the new strain survive without its capsule, it thrives.

"We know that without capsule, they stick better to surfaces, so that may help them to transmit more easily," said Dr. Claire Turner at Imperial College London, who led the study. "Another possibility is that they can more easily get inside human cells, which makes them harder to treat."

Though the news sounds terrifying, there is a silver lining. The new strain is still quite vulnerable to standard antibiotics, such as penicillin. So treatment is not complicated. Even so, with the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs worldwide, caution should be exercised in how the new strain is dealt with.

"We also need to think about whether our treatment strategies are as good as they can be," said Professor Shiranee Sriskandan, senior author on the study.

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Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

New flesh-eating bacteria is rapidly spreading globally
The new bacteria is closely related to the organisms that cause strep throat and pink eye.