NASTY MICROBES MAY BE THE SOURCE OF MORE MISERY THAN MEDICAL SCIENCE HAS REALIZED. A growing list of cancers has been linked to bacteria and viruses, as has atherosclerosis. Now, kidney stones may join the roster.

The culprit seems to be one of a newly discovered breed of microorganisms dubbed nanobacteria because they're extremely small. They're so tiny that they shouldn't even be alive, according to classical criteria, says their discoverer, Dr. E. Olavi Kajander, a researcher at the University of Kuopio in Finland. The nanobugs may have gone undetected until now for another reason, apart from their size: They hide inside tiny shells that they build around themselves. "The carbonate-apatite shells, or caves, really fascinated us," says Kajander.

Analysis of the shells revealed them to be strikingly similar in composition to the mineral clusters found in kidney stones and calcium deposits in blood vessels. So Kajander and microbiologist Neva Ciftcioglu dissected 30 human kidney stones. Sure enough, they found nanobacteria in every stone. And when they infected healthy human cells with the nanobacteria, the cells developed mineral deposits both inside and outside, according to a report that was published in the July 7 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Establishing a direct causal link will take more sleuthing. That's now under way, with help from NASA researchers. Kajander says he is confident he will soon be able to submit a paper proving that nanobacteria cause human kidney stones.

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