Tennessee Researchers Name Newly Discovered (And Slightly Alarming) Bacteria After Cookeville

Aug 1, 2016

Scientists from Tennessee recently discovered — and named — two species of bacteria growing in man-made water sources in Putnam County. Next, they want to find out just how big of a threat the bacteria pose to humans. 

Originally, the researchers from Tennessee Tech and MTSU were intending to study something they already knew about, says MTSU professor Mary Farone: a pathogen that thrives in the water of industrial air conditioning systems and in hot tubs.  

So they took water samples and studied them in the lab. They found single-celled organisms living in the water — called amoebae — which is common. But then, they found something unusual, Farone says.

Bacteria were living inside the nucleus of the single-celled organisms, "using them almost like what we think of as a Trojan horse: hiding in there, growing and replicating, and then bursting out in large numbers," she says.

"I myself didn't want to believe it. It's almost when you first see something new, you're not really sure if that's what you're really seeing."

They also were able to transfer one of these bacteria species into a human cell line in the lab. "That's where our research is heading, trying to figure out whether or not these are actually pathogens for humans," Farone says.

The research was funded in part by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Their findings were published earlier this year in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

The newly discovered bacteria are now called Berkiella aqaue and Berkiella cookevellensis, named after co-researcher Sharon Berk, after the water they were found in, and after Cookeville, where the water samples were taken.

And what if Berkiella cookevellensis turns out to truly be dangerous? "I don't think we thought about the bad connotations of that," Farone says, laughing. "I hope there are none."