- Olavi Kajander didn't mean to discover the mysterious
particles that have been called the most primitive organisms on Earth and
that could be responsible for a series of painful and sometimes fatal illnesses.
- He was simply trying to find out why certain cultures
of mammalian cells in his lab would die no matter how carefully he prepared
- So the Finnish biochemist and his colleagues slipped
some of their old cultures under an electron microscope one day in 1988
and took a closer look. That's when they saw the particles. Like bacteria
but an astonishing 100 times smaller, they seemed to be thriving inside
the dying cells.
- Believing them to be a possible new form of life, Kajander
named the particles "nanobacteria," published a paper outlining
his findings and spurred one of the biggest controversies in modern microbiology.
- At the heart of the debate is the question of whether
nanobacteria could actually be a new form of life. To this day, critics
argue that a particle just 20 to 200 nanometers in diameter can't possibly
harbor the components necessary to sustain life. The particles are also
incredibly resistant to heat and other methods that would normally kill
bacteria, which makes some scientists wonder if they might be an unusual
form of crystal rather than organisms.
- In 1998, Kajander tried to prove the skeptics wrong by
turning up what he believed to be an example of nanobacteria's ribosomal
RNA, something that only organisms have. But the claim was squashed two
years later by a National Institutes of Health study, which found that
the RNA was actually a remnant from a bacteria that often contaminates
- The debate would have ended there, except for a steadily
increasing number of studies linking nanobacteria to serious health problems,
including kidney stones, aneurysms and ovarian cancer. The studies show
that nanobacteria can infect humans, a find that has helped push nanobacteria
back into the limelight. Now the pressure is on to resolve the controversy
and expose how nanobacteria works -- no matter what it is.
- "It's all pretty exciting stuff," said David
McKay, chief scientist for astrobiology at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
"Whether these are bacteria or not -- it doesn't matter at this point.
What matters is if we can figure out the association between nanobacteria
and kidney stones and develop some kind of countermeasure."
- The link between nanobacteria and human diseases was
first noticed by Kajander and microbiologist Neva &laqno;iftÁioglu
in 1998. The researchers had observed, through an electron microscope,
nanobacteria particles building shells of calcium phosphate around themselves.
They began to investigate whether such particles played a role in causing
kidney stones, which are also made of calcium compounds. Sure enough, at
the center of several stones was a nanobacteria particle.
- Another breakthrough came in 2003 when a team from the
University of Vienna Medical Center discovered nanobacteria in the calcified
debris found in tissue samples from ovarian cancer patients. Meanwhile,
several other studies revealed nanobacteria in samples of calcified arteries.
- Sensing a growing need for tools to detect and study
nanobacteria, Kajander and &laqno;iftÁioglu formed a company called
NanoBac in 1998. The decision was greatly criticized as a conflict of interest
and is still brought up whenever either of the two publishes a new paper.
- Fortunately for the researchers, a 2004 study by the
esteemed Mayo Clinic supported many of their key findings and helped them
regain some of their support. The Mayo study found that nanobacteria does
indeed self-replicate, as Kajander had noticed, and endorsed the idea that
the particles are life forms.
- Kajander and &laqno;iftÁioglu were further vindicated
this February when patients with chronic pelvic pain -- thought to be linked
to urinary stones and prostate calcification -- reported "significant
improvement" after using an experimental treatment manufactured by
NanoBac. The study was conducted by a team at Cleveland Clinic Florida.
- There's a lot riding on studies like these. Roughly 177,500
patients were discharged from U.S. hospitals with kidney stones and related
problems in 2001, according to the NIH. More than 25,000 women in the United
States are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year. In the same period,
14,000 Americans die from complications caused by calcified arteries.
- "It brings up a lot of questions," said John
Lieske, who led the 2004 Mayo Clinic study. "How many kidney stones
are caused by this? Are there other calcification-related diseases that
are caused by nanobacteria? Is it infectious?"
- Surprisingly, few groups are actually working on answering
these questions. One would be hard-pressed to find more than a half-dozen
research teams around the globe studying nanobacteria full time.
- Lieske suggests it's because the field is still relatively
young. But it's clear that there's an additional culprit: the often heated
controversy over whether nanobacteria particles are, in fact, alive.
- "There's a reluctance to get into controversial
areas. It's hard to get proposals funded," said McKay. "Most
people are waiting until there's a little more meat on the bones."
- Even John Cisar, who led the 2000 NIH study that contradicted
Kajander's initial findings, agrees that the issue has become muddled.
Though he maintains his stance that nanobacteria are not alive, he said
in a phone interview that he is not against further research.
- "I'm not saying there's nothing there," said
Cisar. "It's just that we were looking at it from a microbiologist's
perspective. And when we didn't find any signs of life, we moved on."
- Kajander stands by his original assertion that nanobacteria
are life forms. However, he blames himself for getting researchers hung
up on the life question by using the name "nanobacteria."
- "Calcifying self-propagating nanoparticles would
have been much better," he wrote in an e-mail to Wired News.
- But he added that his regrets about the name don't change
the fact that nanobacteria have "miraculous" properties. Those
include a growth cycle that closely matches typical biological cycles,
the ability to form a shell and the "presence of both mammalian and
- It's these properties -- and the potential to save lives
-- that keep researchers focused on nanobacteria.
- In February, NASA's McKay and Nanobac's &laqno;iftÁioglu
announced that they had observed nanobacteria growing at five times its
normal rate after they placed it in an incubator that simulates the microgravity
conditions of space. The findings mean astronauts may be at an elevated
risk for kidney stones on long flights -- something NASA is extremely worried
about in light of its new plans to send humans to Mars.
- The findings could also add fuel to nanobacteria research
by giving scientists a way to grow cultures faster.
- "The trouble with studying nanobacteria is that
trying to get enough material is very hard," said Lieske. "Trying
to culture a lot of it takes time."
- Indeed, nanobacteria particles double about once every
three days. In comparison, typical bacteria doubles about every 20 minutes.
- Lieske's group has continued to experiment with nanobacteria
since its 2004 paper. Though he said the team is looking for evidence of
DNA and RNA, he is cautious about saying whether he thinks the particles
are alive or just an unknown form of crystal.
- As a possibility, he offered a third option: The particles
could be a form of archaea, a relatively new category of tiny organisms
whose DNA is vastly different from that found in typical bacteria. Over
the past two decades, archaea has surprised scientists by turning up in
places where life was least expected, like in sulfurous lakes and hydrothermal
- Whatever the case, the Mayo Clinic team may publish a
paper outlining new findings in about six months, according to Lieske.
- The world may not be waiting, but a handful of faithful
microbiologists certainly will.
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