Shiga toxin is nasty stuff. If you are infected with a Shiga-producing bacterium, like Shigella dysenteriae or some E. coli strains, there is no clear treatment: if you are given antibiotics, your infected cells will explode, spraying the toxin all over neighboring cells and exacerbating your symptoms. Each year, 150 million people are infected with Shiga-producing bacteria, which cause dysentery and food poisoning, and a million of those die. The lack of effective treatment for such Shiga toxicosis infections is one of the main reasons this year’s outbreak of E. coli poisoning in Europe was so deadly, with more than 3,700 people infected and 45 dead. But now scientists studying how the toxin makes its way around the cell have discovered that treating mice with the metal element manganese makes them resistant to Shiga poisoning. Since manganese’s chemistry is already well understood and it’s readily available, the possibility of using it as a treatment is exciting.
Here’s how manganese blocks Shiga’s spread, according to the group’s experiments in cultured human cells: