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What is Enteric Bacteria?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Enteric bacteria are bacteria in the family Enterobacteriaceae. These bacteria reside normally in the guts of many animals, including humans, and some are pathogenic, causing disease in certain animal species. Many cases of food poisoning are caused by infection with enteric bacteria, as are some more serious conditions, such as the plague. One of the most famous members of the family is Escherichia coli, a bacterium which has been studied extensively in laboratories all over the world.

These bacteria are rod shaped upon magnification, and they are also gram negative. Many are anaerobic, a trait which allows them to thrive in the environment of the gut, and most produce energy by feeding on sugars and converting them into lactic acid. Some of the members of this family can live in the gut without causing health problems in individuals of good health, while others almost always cause signs of infection, including vomiting, diarrhea, and related symptoms.

At least 40 genera have been identified in this family, including Salmonella, Proteus, Serratia, Enterobacter, Citrobacter, Pseudomonas,, and Klebsiella. People usually become infected with enteric bacteria as a result of poor hygiene and contact with people who have existing infections. Cooking food thoroughly can often prevent infection, as can observing basic handwashing protocols and maintaining a clean environment in the kitchen and around the bathroom.

In addition to being found in the guts of humans, enteric bacteria also live in animals, including the animals which humans raise for meat and products such as eggs and milk. Cross-contamination of animal products can occur, allowing these bacteria to enter the food supply. Thanks to the extensive distribution method used by many companies in the industry, it is possible for these bacteria to become spread far and wide across a region as products are dispatched to various grocers, restaurants, and packaged food facilities. This can make outbreaks tricky to identify and control.

Some enteric bacteria can be controlled with the use of antibiotics and other drugs which attack the bacteria in the gut. The widespread use of antibiotics in both people and animals used for food has led to the development of antibiotic resistance, however, in which bacteria have been allowed to develop the ability to survive even high doses of antibiotics. E. coli in particular has developed a number of very virulent strains which have raised concern in the medical community, as some of these strains cannot be treated with the medications available on the market.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon971637 — On Sep 28, 2014

When was enteric bacteria discovered? I can't seem to find the history about it anywhere.

By anon357645 — On Dec 05, 2013

There are more good animal-associated microbes than bad -- the bad just get all the attention.

There are actually more prokaryotic cells (bacteria/archaea) in and on the human body than there are human eukaryotic cells. (feel free to look it up if you don't believe me.)

There are many strains of E. coli, some are pathogenic (e.g. the infamous leafy-green contaminate E. coli O157:H7), while others are living in your intestinal tract helping you digest your food.

Location is also a factor in determining a good vs bad microbe. E. coli naturally found in your GI tract is beneficial, but when that same strain gets moved somewhere it shouldn't be, it can be considered pathogenic (e.g. urethral opening, causing UTIs).

By anon166260 — On Apr 07, 2011

No, not all gut bacteria are harmful, and most are beneficial. A human colon contains, I think, something like a kilo of bacteria - most of the weight of feces is not, as many people assume, food residue, but dead and dying bacteria.

By pharmchick78 — On Oct 06, 2010

@streamfinder --Well, as you said, these bacteria are gram negative, and as the article said they are anaerobic, which means they don't need air to thrive.

As far as physical bacteria characteristics go, enteric bacteria are rod-shaped, and have more genes, collectively, than the human genome does.

Not all enteric bacteria cause illness, though many do.

Finally, you may hear enteric bacteria refereed to as gut flora, particularly on prebiotic and probiotic supplements.

Though that's a very basic overview of enteric bacteria characteristics, hope it helped.

By StreamFinder — On Oct 06, 2010

Now I finally get why they call it "enteric fever" -- I guess it's caused by enteric bacteria, right?

So what are some of the characteristics of enteric bacteria -- I mean, I know that they show up as gram negative on a bacteria test, but what are some of the characteristics of these types of bacteria cells?

By closerfan12 — On Oct 05, 2010

Are there any good bacteria in the enteric bacteria family? I mean, if it's got e. coli bacteria, I would kind of assume not, but I was just wondering, because I know that some kinds of gram negative bacteria families have both good and bad "members" so to speak.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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