Rebecca Legel’s front page article in today’s (July 2) Columbia Missourian demands some commentary. First, this is not front page stuff. That was probably an editorial rather than the author’s blunder. The biggest mistake is the author’s failure to recognize or acknowledge that there is a huge world of E. coli bacteria of which the overwhelming majority are harmless. The story, as written, can create unnecessary alarm in the minds of some readers and could have a significant impact on the economy of the Lake of the Ozark region. Each of us carries about 100,000,000 of them per gram of intestinal content. Because of the ubiquity of this easily identified, usually harmless, bacterium (please note that “bacterium” is singular and “bacteria” is plural) in human and animal feces, it is used as a marker, an indicator, of possible fecal contamination of food and water and therefore the potential presence of harmful, and more difficult to isolate and identify, disease-producing intestinal microorganisms such as Shigella, Salmonella and amoeba. In the large world of E. coli (the “E” is an abbreviation of Escherichia named after the Austrian-German pediatrician and microbiologist, Theodor Escherich, who first discovered the organism in 1885), a few subsets are indeed capable of causing disease; most prominently diarrheal diseases by means of toxins for which they have acquired the genetic information from other bacteria. Of these, the most dangerous is E. coli O157 (one of the many hundreds of E. coli serotypes which have been identified) which carries a toxin which is practically identical to that produced by Shigella (which cause bacillary dysentery) and can cause a hemorrhagic uremic syndrome which can be fatal, especially in children.
In addition, and perhaps most importantly, because of its harmless nature and ease of cultivation, E. coli has become the most widely studied bacterium in molecular genetics laboratories and has earned its researchers many Nobel prizes.
While I, myself, would be reluctant for esthetic reasons to drink a glass or more of the untreated water from the Lake of the Ozarks, the likelihood of becoming sick from such an act is practically minuscule. I would stick to tap or bottled water or, better yet, carbonated beverages.
Finkelstein is a Curators’ Professor and Millsap Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the MU School of Medicine.