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The Vibrio Family

Bacteria Working in the Shadows: Vibrio
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The world is cold, bitter place for the unfortunate few who have not seen Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. Parodies don’t quite make sense; quotations from the film echo in lost cause; and the color orange carries little significance beyond its failure to rhyme with anything.

For those who haven’t absorbed the tribulations of the Corleones, we offer a microbial placeholder: the Vibrio family.

This gram-negative, rod-shaped bacterium found in sea water carries both a sheathed flagella and a whopping reputation. First isolated from cholera patients, this highly pathogenic bacterium was found to enter the body through contaminated foods and open, untreated wounds. Vibrio cholerae and his cousins Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus are downright deadly; at best, consorting with them takes you to the mattresses, suffering from a foul case of food poisoning. Their most recent outbreak in 2005 saw cases of illness and death in post-Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

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Off land, the Vibrio family is a spritely bunch. They are one of few bacteria that can communicate through quorum sensing — a family summit, if you will. Through quorum sensing, the Vibrios enhance symbiotic relationships they have with bioluminescent marine animals — feeding off decayed organic matter on the animal while assisting in reproduction, metabolism and camouflage. Vibrio fischeri, the Fredo of the group, is by far the family’s least potent. With bioluminescent properties itself, you can find low quantities of V. fischeri on his own in the ocean’s subtropical waters and in the normal gut flora of aquatic hosts, like the Hawaiian Bobtail Squid.

Vibrios found in the ocean’s photic zone contain a light-harvesting pigment that aids in photosynthesis. Some researchers believe study into this pigment may aid in our understanding and harnessing of clean energy. But for now, when not reaping death and destruction to hapless bystanders, the Vibrio family continues to sleep with the fishes.