Microbiologists at the University of Georgia worked specifically in mice with the gastric bacterium Helicobacter pylori, a pathogen that colonizes the mucosal surfaces of the human stomach and gives rise to gastritis, peptic ulcers and sometimes certain types of gastric cancer.
"This was completely unexpected, because most scientists have thought that hydrogen was always lost from the body as a waste product," said Rob Maier, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and Ramsey Professor of Microbiology at UGA. "This is the first evidence that hydrogen remains in the body at substantial levels and is an energy source for pathogenic bacteria. Our knowledge that human pathogens can grow on hydrogen while residing in an animal may have profound implications for the treatment of some diseases."
Coauthor for the paper is Jonathan Olson, now an assistant professor of microbiology at North Carolina State University, who contributed to the work as a postdoctoral associate in Maier's laboratory at UGA.
Perhaps as important as the discovery that hydrogen can fuel the growth of Helicobacter is Maier's belief that the same process may provide energy for other human pathogens, such as Salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter jejuni, the leading cause of bacterial human diarrhea illnesses in the world. These bacteria also have the hydrogen-utilizing enzyme, but the role of the enzyme has not yet been addressed, said Maier. Because the hydrogen comes from flora in the colon, something as simple as a diet change could profoundly impact the progress of disease from all of these bacteria.