Solving the mystery of “botox”, the world’s strongest neurotoxin

Why is the Clostridium botulinum bacterium lethal? Professor Miia Lindström heads a study intended to determine why and under which circumstances this bacterium, which can live in soil or water, produces the deadly neurotoxin, botulin, also known as botox.

Lindström has received both a European Research Council Consolidator Grant as well as an Academy of Finland project grant for her research projects, which will launch in late 2016, lasting four and five years, respectively.

Bacteriological research is changing. A bacterial colony, previously assumed to consist of millions of identical, homogenously behaving bacterial cells, is now thought to behave more like a multi-cell “organ”, dividing the labour between individual cells or groups of cells carried out and coordinated in response to stimuli from the environment.

This is also the premise of the study on Clostridium botulinum, led by Professor Miia Lindström.  

– We seek to understand why the bacteria, or some of them, produce the deadly neurotoxin botulin, and what motivates them. If we could comprehensively understand how producing the neurotoxin benefits the bacteria, we could find out how the bacteria's toxin production could be regulated and controlled," Lindström explains.

Botox on my plate – no thank you!

Even though the C. botulinum bacterium was identified centuries ago, it remains interesting due to its toxin-production. Even a millionth of a gram of botulin can cause botulism, which manifests as quadriplegia in humans and animals. Botulism may lead to death as the respiratory system becomes paralysed. Recovery requires weeks or months of intensive care.

– Fortunately, botulism is extremely rare, but a documented food-transmitted phenomenon, and one which the food industry is constantly battling, Lindström explains.

Bacteria which generate spores, such as C. botulinum are found everywhere in the food chain. The spores are present in the soil and water from which they enter the food chain. Bacterial spores are surprisingly resilient, as they have a strong outer layer which protects their DNA and other functions. This means that some of them can survive the processes of the food industry.

– Currently, the processes used on food are fairly gentle due to consumer demand, Lindström points out.

Food products are increasingly packed in oxygen-free packaging which utilise vacuum packs or protective gases.

– Many bacterial spores survive without oxygen and in cold conditions, and some of them may be able to produce toxins during their growth cycle.

Research at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Viikki

Research on C. botulinum can only be conducted in a special laboratory, as the handling of neurotoxin-producing bacterial growth requires a secure environment.

– We have an excellent laboratory at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and a strong history of working on neurotoxic bacteria for more than 25 years. The laboratory was originally established by Professor Hannu Korkeala, Lindström explains.

– We are already among the top three research laboratories studying C. botulinum in the world, but with the new funding we are aiming for the top position!”

At the moment, the research group consists of two postdoctoral researchers, six doctoral students working on their dissertations and a number of Licentiate and Master’s degree students as well as trainees.

– We will now be able to significantly bolster the group’s methodological skills through new recruitment, thanks to this major funding, Lindström enthuses.

International cooperation is necessary

– We are well connected with all C. botulinum research all around the world, but a central contact has been our cooperation with the University of Nottingham, where tools for genetic manipulation of clostridium bacteria are being developed. Such tools are necessary for our research, and they have only existed for a short time, Lindström points out.

– Other key partners include the ITQB NOVA Institute under the Universidade NOVA in Lisbon, which has considerable resources for cellular bacterial research, as well as the Pasteur Institute in France, which is known as the Mecca of bacteria research.

Professor Miia Lindström’s research group focusing on the C. botulinum bacteria works at the University of Helsinki Faculty of Veterinary Medicine on the Viikki Campus. Professor Lindström has received both a European Research Council Consolidator Grant as well as an Academy of Finland project grant for her research projects, which will launch in late 2016. Additionally, there are three other research projects underway: the projects focusing on food safety and botulism in production animals are funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, and the project focusing on basic research on bacterial spores is funded by the EU. The group is or has been involved in five different European laboratory and research cooperation networks.