Bacterial parasites that cause disease are called pathogens. Among bacterial plant diseases are leaf spot, fire blight, and wilts; animal diseases caused by bacteria include tuberculosis, cholera, syphilis, typhoid fever, and tetanus. Some bacteria attack the tissues directly; others produce poisonous substances called toxins. Natural defense against harmful bacteria is provided by antibodies (see immunity). Certain bacterial diseases, e.g., tetanus, can be prevented by injection of antitoxin or of serum containing antibodies against specific bacterial antigens; immunity to some can be induced by vaccination; and certain specific bacterial parasites are killed by antibiotics.
New strains of more virulent bacterial pathogens, many of them resistant to antibiotics, have emerged in recent years. Many believe this to be due to the overuse of antibiotics, both in prescriptions for minor, self-limiting ailments and as growth enhancers in livestock; such overuse increases the likelihood of bacterial mutations. For example, a variant of the normally harmless Escherichia coli has caused serious illness and death in victims of food poisoning. See also drug resistance.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.