Researchers have discovered new details about a disease which can kill humans in just 24 hours - with a simple sniff. Worse, fears that the disease could be used as a bioweapon are fuelling scientists to discover a cure.

Researchers at Griffith University and Bond University have unearthed information about the pathogenic bacteria Burkholderia pseudomallei, which has been described as "prevalent" in Northern Australia and is responsible for the deaths of 89,000 people every year.

The scary part about the bacteria is you don't know you've even been infected, and just a day later, the results could be fatal.

It is most commonly found in soil in populated areas of Northern Australia, such as Darwin.


The bacteria, which lies dormant in the ground, can be picked up by literally breathing.

Once in a human system, it travels through the brain and spinal cord and can transform itself into the potentially fatal disease, melioidosis, which kills within 24-hours.

Prior to new research published in Immunity and Infection this week, scientists were baffled about how the bacteria travelled through the body, and at what speed.

But no one could have predicted its swift affect, with an affected person having a 20-50 per cent chance of death once melioidosis travels to the brain.

"Imagine walking around and you sniff it up from the soil and the next day you've got this bacteria in your brain and damaging the spinal cord," Dr James St John, Head of Griffith's Clem Jones Centre for Neurobiology and Stem Cell Research, said.

"It can be at a very low level, the body doesn't even know it's there. You could have it and don't know it, that's scary.

"It could just be sitting there waiting for an opportune moment, or it could just be doing small incremental damage over a lifetime. You could lose the function in your brain incrementally."

The team of researchers used mice to study how the bacteria flows through the body, discovering it travels from the nerves in the nasal cavity before moving to the brain stem and then into the spinal cord.

Yet there is still much more to be known about the bacteria, with researchers still unsure of its long-term effects.

Associate Professor Ekberg, from Bond's Faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine, said: "But what are the long term consequences? Do the bacteria hide away until sometime later and do little bits of incremental damage, or do they immediately cause full blown infection?

"We are now working on these questions."

Researchers are now working on ways to stimulate supporting cells that could remove the bacteria.

According to Griffith University, Dr St John said the bacteria had the potential to be used as a "bioweapon" and knowing how to combat it was extremely important.

Professor Ifor Beacham, from the Institute for Glycomics, said it came as no surprise that the nose was a portal for viruses to travel. But, it was how far the virus travelled that was the shock.

He said the olfactory mucosa, located in the nose, is very close to the brain and it had long been known that viruses could reach the brain from the olfactory mucosa.

"Our latest results represent the first direct demonstration of transit of a bacterium from the olfactory mucosa to the central nervous system (CNS) via the trigeminal nerve; bacteria were found a considerable distance from the olfactory mucosa, in the brain stem, and even more remarkably in the spinal cord," he said.

"These results add considerably to our understanding of this particular disease. It seems likely, however, that other bacteria may also transit from nose to CNS, although this has yet to be determined."