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Sugar consumption hypervirulent strains of Clostridium bacteria

A very important study published in the prestigious journal Nature indicates that the emergence of hypervirulent strains of the dangerous bacterium Clostridium difficile is due to their ability to metabolize trehalose, a sugar added to several industrial food products.

Clostridium difficile is an opportunistic gut bacterium that can develop after a weakening of the gut flora, such as after taking antibiotics. Under favorable conditions, this bacterium can cause significant damage to the gut by producing two powerful toxins that drastically reduce the water absorption of the gut lining and cause significant diarrhea. In the most severe cases, the disease can even degenerate into pseudomembranous colitis and cause perforation of the colon, leading to peritonitis. Therefore, infections caused by C. difficile should be taken very seriously, especially since the spores of this bacterium are very resistant to the most common antiseptics and are therefore found in hospitals or long-term care facilities, where they infect already debilitated people.

Sudden onset of infections that cannot be treated with antibiotics

Between 2001 and 2006, epidemic strains of the highly virulent C. difficile suddenly appeared in North America and several European countries. Most of these strains descended from a single lineage of C. difficile called ribotype 027 (RT0272) that has since spread worldwide. The sudden arrival of this hypervirulent strain (along with another called RT078) is of great concern as infection with this bacteria has been associated with a dramatic increase in C. difficile deaths. How these two strains could have spread so widely out of nowhere in such a short time has remained a great mystery until now.

Hypervirulent bacteria that feed on the sugar we eat

A very important study suggests that this explosion of hypervirulent strains of C. difficile is due to their ability to utilize trehalose, a sugar used as an additive in a very large number of manufactured foods. Genome sequencing of the two current strains of the disease shows that each of them has mutations that allow them to metabolize this sugar, even when present in very small amounts, and thereby create the glucose necessary for their growth. This use of trehalose is important because it allows the two bacterial strains to produce greater amounts of toxins that attack the host’s gut, thereby increasing their virulence.

More trehalose sugar, more resistant bacteria

As the authors point out, prior to 1995, trehalose was a fairly expensive sugar and as such was very little used by the food industry. However, improvements in production techniques have drastically reduced costs, and since the 2000s this sugar has been added on a large scale

Variety of products including pasta, ice cream, charcuterie, soups and pastries. The emergence of epidemic strains of C. difficile at the beginning of the millennium (2001-2006) therefore coincides with a higher population consumption of trehalose, strongly suggesting that the presence of this sugar in the gut allowed the outbreak of these hypervirulent strains.

Reduce your consumption of industrial sugar

These observations are another example of the many problems that can arise from overconsumption of industrial foods. These products tend to be creations that are much more a matter of chemistry than cooking, particularly with a range of additives used to enhance the texture and shelf life of these products. The trehalose example shows that some of these additives are not as safe as one might think and that it remains a good strategy to minimize the consumption of processed foods and instead favor real foods, especially those of plant origin to stay in good health.


Collins J et al. Dietary trehalose enhances the virulence of the Clostridium difficile epidemic. Nature, January 2018.

* Presse Santé strives to convey health knowledge in a language accessible to all. In NO CASE can the information given replace the advice of a doctor.

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hypervirulent bacteria sugar consumption hypervirulent strains sugar

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