A terrifying “sniff and die” bug that kills 89,000 people around the world each year can travel from the nose to the brain and spinal cord in just 24 hours, scientists have learned.

The Burkholderia pseudomallei bacterium causes the potentially fatal disease meliodosis and is prevalent in northern Australia and south-east Asia.

Until now, scientists did not understand how the bug reached the brain and spinal cord, or how quickly.

Kerrie Grist, from @Bristol science attraction, inspects a real human brain suspended in liquid with a to-scale skeleton, central nervous system and human silhouette carved into acrylic, as the new exhibition called 'All About Us' prepares to open to the public on Friday 11th March.
(Ben Birchall/PA)

The new research, published in the journal Immunity, shows that the microbe – which hides in soil – is even scarier than previously thought.

Once it infects the brain, a victim has a 20% to 50% chance of dying. Even without killing, it can cause long-term damage to the brain and other organs.

A student looks a matter under a microscope.
(David Davies/PA)

Dr James St John, from Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, said: “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.

“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.”

A real human brain suspended in liquid with a to-scale skeleton, central nervous system and human silhouette carved into acrylic, inside the @Bristol science attraction as part new exhibition called 'All About Us'.
(Ben Birchall/PA)

Co-author Dr Jenny Ekberg, from Bond University in Queensland, Australia, said it was frightening how easily and quickly the bacteria could invade the brain.

She added: “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.”