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Deciphering Virulence: Heart-harming bacteria flaunt unique viral genes

Scientists have mapped the genome of a bacterium responsible for the heart-damaging illness known as acute rheumatic fever. In the process, they've identified telling genetic differences–many of them introduced by viruses–that distinguish the dangerous pathogen from its less virulent relatives.

People who suffer from rheumatic fever sometimes develop rheumatic heart disease, which causes about 3,600 deaths in the United States each year. Epidemics of the fever hit Salt Lake City in 1986–1987 and 1998–1999 (SN: 11/28/98, p. 346).

The offending bacteria belong to the group A streptococci. Why some infections by these bacteria cause only strep throat while others cause more severe conditions–including rheumatic fever and the flesh-destroying disease known as necrotizing fasciitus–isn't clear, but certain subtypes of the group are more likely than others to trigger the fever.

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