A strain of E. coli known as O104:H4, made worldwide headlines when an outbreak in Germany in May 2011, sickened approximately 4,000 people and killed 50.

This event, linked to fresh sprouts, quickly became the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak in history.

It had evolved from a type of E. coli known to be harmless enteroaggregative E. coli and had acquired the genes to produce Shiga toxin from more virulent strains known as enterohemorrhagic E. coli.

Microbiological research laboratories around the globe began pooling resources to coordinate the world’s first “open source” analysis of a microbial genome. In turn, this spurred an unprecedented level of focused study by international collaborators that is still going on two years later.

Like other enteroaggregative E. coli strains, O104:H4 groups together in defensive brick patterns within a host’s intestines, inducing mucus production that both shields and feeds it. Combine that with the ability to produce Shiga toxin, and O104: H4 possesses the right cocktail of genes to become especially harmful in an outbreak.

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