Enlarge / “Brah, sloweth thy roll!” From a manuscript by early medical writer Roger of Salerno (c.1200). (credit: Getty | Hulton Archive)
An ancient bacterium known for devastating and disfiguring its victims has turned to frantically ravaging its own genome to maintain its killer status, according to a new study.

Berserk leprosy bacteria are wildly mutating to become extremely drug resistantArran Reeve, suffering from leprosy, circa 1886. (credit: Pierre Arents)
Strains of Mycobacterium leprae—the main bacterium behind leprosy*—are hypermutating and becoming extremely drug resistant. Researchers made the alarming discovery in a survey of 154 M. leprae genomes collected from 25 countries.

The survey, published recently in Nature Communications, offers a rare genetic glimpse of the ancient, yet cryptic, bacterium, which still manages to cause 200,000 new cases worldwide each year.
The international team of researchers, led by Stewart Cole of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, noted that the hypermutating state “likely favors the emergence of drug resistance.” But, there’s a catch.

Because M. leprae already has a concise genome, it also “could be detrimental and ultimately lethal,” he and his team write.

Basically, the revved-up mutation rate could haphazardly damage genes essential for survival.
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