What is Clostridium Botulinum? - Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Instructor: Thomas Higginbotham

Tom has taught math / science at secondary & post-secondary, and a K-12 school administrator. He has a B.S. in Biology and a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction.

''Clostridium botulinum'' is a bacterium found in soil throughout the world. It produces botulinum, one of the most toxic poisons known. In this lesson, learn about this bacterium's characteristics and its impact.

The Most Powerful Neurotoxin Known!

Muscles are so much more than something we develop at the gym. Our heart and lungs, which deliver life-giving oxygen to our cells, are perhaps our most important muscles. Now, imagine a poison so toxic that a mere speck would render muscles, including heart and lungs, paralyzed and useless. That is botulinum, the toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. This bacterium is nearly everywhere in the world's soils, goes into a protective spore state that can withstand temperatures at boiling and above, and produces a toxin so lethal, it is estimated that a kilogram of botulinum could kill the entire world's population. Smaller amounts of the toxin, though, can help people look younger. Interested? Read on to learn more about what Clostridium botulinum is, the illnesses it causes and treatments for those illnesses.

What Is Clostridium Botulinum?

Clostridium botulinum is a gram-positive, rod-shaped, bacterium that can be found nearly everywhere in soils. It grows best in anaerobic (low or no oxygen) environments, and C. botulinum forms spores (i.e., a dormant or sleeping state) that can withstand boiling temperatures, making it hard to kill. The bacterium produces the toxin only in anaerobic conditions.

There are four major groups of C. botulinum (I-IV) each of which produce the toxin botulinum. There are also seven or eight varieties of botulinum toxin (A-G). For reasons not well understood, the toxin varieties produced by C. botulinum vary according to geographic region. For example, in the Eastern part of the United States' soils, botulinum toxin type B is the more common variety produced, while in the Western part of the United States, botulinum toxin type A is the more common variety produced. Only toxin types A, B, E, and F cause botulism, a specific food poisoning.

Illnesses Caused by C. botulinum

Three major types of illnesses are most commonly caused by C. botulinum: infant botulism, food botulism, and wound botulism. In the United States, approximately 150 cases of botulism occur annually, with 65% being infant botulism, 15% foodborne botulism, and 20% wound botulism. While each of these illnesses is characterized by similar flaccid paralysis or possibly death, there are variations in the manifestations within the victims. In all cases, droopy facial features, weak muscle capacity or paralysis, and difficulty swallowing (feeding in infants) or speaking (crying in infants) are common.

Foodborne, Wound and Infant Botulism

Foodborne botulism is common in cases where canned foods have not been treated properly. As mentioned earlier, C. botulinum spores are able to survive boiling temperatures, so it is important to treat foods at higher temperatures, or through high pressure boiling.

Though contacting botulism is possible from normal wounds, the majority of wound botulism occurs in intravenous drug users (particularly black tar heroin). These users introduce the bacterium to their system through repeated injections.

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