The vicious E. coli bacteria that have killed at least 18 people and sickened hundreds in Europe represent a new strain that's never been seen before, the World Health Organization said today, elevating concerns about the microbe and foods it has infected. Genetic testing suggests the strain is a mutant form of two different E. coli varieties, according to the WHO, with unusually aggressive genes that may explain why the outbreak has been so large and so lethal. "This is a unique strain that has never been isolated from patients before," WHO food safety expert Hilde Kruse tells the AP, adding that it has "various characteristics that make it more virulent and toxin-producing" than the hundreds of E. coli strains that naturally inhabit people's intestines.

The mutant E. coli has infected more than 1,500 people so far, including some 470 who have developed a rare kidney disease called hemolytic uremic syndrome. Eighteen people have died from the infection, all but one of them in Germany, the country hit hardest by the outbreak. Nearly everyone who's been sickened by the mutant microbe either lives in Germany or has recently traveled there, but German officials are still struggling to trace the origin of the outbreak. They've warned residents and visitors not to eat lettuce, tomatoes or cucumbers, and the WHO advises everyone to wash their hands before eating or cooking, to wash and peel all fruits and vegetables, and to cook food thoroughly before eating it. Russia seems to be more shaken by the outbreak than most countries, taking the dramatic step today of banning all vegetable imports from anywhere in the European Union (it had already banned imports from Germany and Spain on Monday). "How many more lives of European citizens does it take for European officials to tackle this problem?" one Russian consumer-rights official tells the state-run RIA Novosti news agency. No infections have been reported yet in Russia.

The epidemic is considered the third-largest E. coli outbreak in world history, the AP reports, and may already be the deadliest. In addition to the mystery of how it's infecting people, there's also little evidence so far of how it evolved. But as Kruse tells the AP, bacteria are constantly swapping genes, and it's common for them to mutate rapidly and in sudden bursts — especially when potential hosts are crammed closely together. "There's a lot of mobility in the microbial world," she says, adding that strains from animals and humans often trade genes, similar to how viruses like Ebola or swine flu can jump from livestock to humans. "One should think of an animal source." Some experts suspect the mutant E. coli came from contaminated manure used to fertilize vegetables, although they warn it won't be easy to trace the true source anytime soon.

(Sources: Associated Press, New York Times, Guardian, BBC News)


Multiple tornadoes ripped through western and central Massachusetts on Wednesday, killing at least four people and adding yet another chapter to what is fast becoming one of the worst tornado seasons in U.S. history. The National Weather Service received reports of seven tornadoes across the state between 8:30 and 11:30 p.m., while at least 19 communities suffered severe damage, the Boston Globe reports. "We are in an emergency situation," Gov. Deval Patrick said at the state's emergency management headquarters in Framingham. "We are hoping and praying and working as hard as possible to keep the fatalities limited to those four."

Much of the storms' fury was focused on Springfield, a city of more than 150,000 people 90 miles west of Boston. Three of the four confirmed deaths occurred there and in West Springfield, located across the Connecticut River, while 33 people were injured in Springfield alone, the Globe reports. Roofs were torn off several buildings along the city's Main Street, and a mounted video camera captured footage of a funnel cloud tossing around debris as it plowed through downtown and into the river. Gov. Patrick has declared a state of emergency and called up 1,000 National Guard troops, while police and firefighters are going door to door in Springfield to make sure no one is still trapped under rubble. The fourth confirmed death occurred in Brimfield, while tornadoes were also reported in Westfield and Sturbridge.

The NWS has received more than 1,400 preliminary tornado reports so far this year, and Wednesday's fatalities raise the year's national death count to 522, surpassing the previous record of 519 tornado deaths in 1953. Most of the tornadoes before Wednesday had struck along Tornado Alley or Dixie Alley, two regions familiar with funnel clouds. But New England isn't accustomed to such violent storms — Massachusetts hasn't experienced a tornado at all since 2008, and the state averages just two twisters per year. The state's last killer tornado was in May 1995, when three people died.

(Sources: Boston Globe, AP, NWS)


A complex life form has been found living 1 mile below the Earth's surface, according to a study published in the journal Nature, proving life can thrive in a place where only bacteria were thought to exist. Nicknamed "worms from hell," the newly discovered nematodes (pictured) were found living in several South African gold mines, shattering scientific assumptions about the conditions needed for multicellular life. To find animals with nervous, digestive and reproductive systems so deep underground is like finding "Moby Dick in Lake Ontario," study co-author Tullis Onsott of Princeton University tells the Washington Post. "This is telling us something brand new," he says. "For a relatively complex creature like a nematode to penetrate that deep is simply remarkable."

Nematodes, aka roundworms, are known to exist on the deep ocean floor, but they're typically not found more than 10 to 20 feet underneath the ground or the seabed, says co-author Gaetan Borgonie from Belgium's University of Ghent. Yet Borgonie saw no reason they couldn't survive deeper than that, and without funding or professional support, he contacted Onsott with an idea to search for nematodes in boreholes below gold mines. "Everyone thought I was insane risking a career hunting something everybody said they knew could not be," Borgonie tells Wired. But the duo ended up finding the elusive nematodes, formally named Halicephalobus mephisto, living in extremely hot water fed by subterranean rock fissures and pools — essentially "uncovering a new realm of biology on Earth," the Post reports.

Beyond some big implications for our own biosphere — potentially offering insight about the origins of life on Earth, or at least broadening the horizons of where it might exist — the discovery could also open new doors for the study of alien life, known as astrobiology. If complex worms can live a mile below the Earth's surface, it seems more plausible that some sort of life could survive under the surface of Mars, for example. "What we found shows that harsh conditions do not necessarily exclude complexity," Borgonie says, adding that "evolution of Martian life might have continued underground. ... Life on Mars could be more complex than we imagined."

(Sources: Washington Post, Wired)


Great white sharks are big AC/DC fans, favoring the Australian hard-rock band over all other types of music, according to Australia's ABC News. The discovery was made by a charter boat captain in South Australia, where he's been conducting research into which kinds of music affect shark behavior. And despite the band's abrasive, confrontational style, AC/DC songs actually seem to calm the sharks down, he says, making them much less aggressive than normal. For some reason, they respond most dramatically to the song "You Shook Me All Night Long," although they also predictably like "If You Want Blood."

"Their behavior was more investigative, more inquisitive and a lot less aggressive," says Adventure Bay Charter's Matt Waller, the boat captain who conducted the research. "They actually came past in a couple of occasions when we had the speaker in the water and rubbed their face along the speaker, which was really bizarre." Waller says he's tried a variety of music, yet the sharks always show the strongest preference for hard-rocking Aussies in knickers. "We know the AC/DC music works best by trial and error, and we are doing more research to see what works best with different species of shark," he tells Adelaide Now. Waller says he believes the sharks are attracted to AC/DC because of the low-frequency range of the band's music, which is compatible with the animals' highly sensitive hearing. Using music in this way echoes a similar practice performed by Pacific Islanders, who traditionally rattle coconut shells underwater to attract sharks.

While being able to lure sharks is a boon for Waller's tourism business, he tells ABC News that for public-safety purposes, it would be even more useful to discover what kind of music sharks hate — offering a kind of nontoxic shark repellant. "We're looking at firstly identifying exactly what the frequencies are," he says. "I have this thought that if there is something that attracts them, there is obviously going to be something that they reject. Maybe it would be Justin Bieber. Who knows."

(Sources: ABC News, Adelaide Now)


Leatherback turtles are declared endangered, 65 tornadoes strike the U.S. Midwest, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (scientists testing for E. coli in Germany on May 30): ZUMA Press

Photo (tornado damage in West Springfield, Mass., on June 2): MDEP/Flickr

Photo (Halicephalobus mephisto): Gaetan Borgonie/University of Ghent

Photo (great white shark off the coast of Australia): ZUMA Press

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Thurs. 6/2/2011
New E. coli sweeps Europe, tornadoes hit Mass., sharks like AC/DC, and more.