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Granuloma and necrosis in the liver of a guinea pig infected with Brucella suis.

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OpenStax Microbiology

Species in the genus Brucella are gram-negative facultative intracellular pathogens that appear as coccobacilli. Several species cause zoonotic infections in animals and humans, four of which have significant human pathogenicity: B. abortus from cattle and buffalo, B. canis from dogs, B. suis from swine, and B. melitensis from goats, sheep, and camels. Infections by these pathogens are called brucellosis, also known as undulant fever, “Mediterranean fever,” or “Malta fever.” Vaccination of animals has made brucellosis a rare disease in the US, but it is still common in the Mediterranean, south and central Asia, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Human infections are primarily associated with the ingestion of meat or unpasteurized dairy products from infected animals. Infection can also occur through inhalation of bacteria in aerosols when handling animal products, or through direct contact with skin wounds. In the US, most cases of brucellosis are found in individuals with extensive exposure to potentially infected animals (e.g., slaughterhouse workers, veterinarians).

Two important virulence factors produced by Brucella spp. are urease, which allows ingested bacteria to avoid destruction by stomach acid, and lipopolysaccharide (LPS), which allows the bacteria to survive within phagocytes. After gaining entry to tissues, the bacteria are phagocytized by host neutrophils and macrophages. The bacteria then escape from the phagosome and grow within the cytoplasm of the cell. Bacteria phagocytized by macrophages are disseminated throughout the body. This results in the formation of granulomas within many body sites, including bone, liver, spleen, lung, genitourinary tract, brain, heart, eye, and skin. Acute infections can result in undulant (relapsing) fever, but untreated infections develop into chronic disease that usually manifests as acute febrile illness (fever of 40–41 °C [104–105.8 °F]) with recurring flu-like signs and symptoms.

Brucella is only reliably found in the blood during the acute fever stage; it is difficult to diagnose by cultivation. In addition, Brucella is considered a BSL-3 pathogen and is hazardous to handle in the clinical laboratory without protective clothing and at least a class II biological safety cabinet. Agglutination tests are most often used for serodiagnosis. In addition, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISAs) are available to determine exposure to the organism. The antibiotics doxycycline or ciprofloxacin are typically prescribed in combination with rifampin; gentamicin, streptomycin, and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (TMP-SMZ) are also effective against Brucella infections and can be used if needed.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: