A close relative of the microorganism that causes tuberculosis (TB) in humans forms spores, research by Uppsala University scientists has shown.
The researchers say that this is a sensational finding because scientists have long been convinced that such bacteria-the mycobacteria-were incapable of forming spores.
Research leader Leif Kirsebom claims to have obtained photographic proof, while working with the bacteria that causes tuberculosis in fish, which challenges this long-held belief.
The discovery, which has attracted much attention from other scientists, might constitute a new turn in the fight against human tuberculosis.
"This opens a completely new chapter in mycobacteriology. Now we can perhaps understand how mycobacteria 'hibernate' and cause latent infections," says Leif Kirsebom.
The research team point out that to "hibernate", many types of bacteria generate spores-which are stabile and can remain inactive for many years.
They say that bacteria often form spores when faced with harsh conditions, such as a drastic decrease in nutrition.
According to them, the discovery that mycobacteria can produce spores means that even this group of microorganisms has the ability to "hibernate".
The microorganism that causes human tuberculosis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics. It is estimated that a third of the world's population carries the microorganism latently, without any symptoms of the disease.
"This means that the disease can break out much later, even decades after the initial infection," explains Leif Kirsebom.
The discovery that mycobacteria can form spores opens entirely new avenues to understanding how they "hibernate" and spread.