NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Here's some hot news from the world of science: The habit of jazzing up raw oysters with a splash of spicy cocktail sauce just might make good medical sense.

It kills the germs.

Most oyster eaters probably indulge in cocktail sauce because they like the zippy taste. The new report raises the possibility it could also be a healthy thing to do.

One risk of eating raw oysters is the microbes in their digestive tracts. Oysters on the half shell are sometimes tainted with bacteria that can cause ailments ranging from mild diarrhea to dangerous blood poisoning.

Serious illness is rare. However, some restaurants have put up signs warning that this classic Gulf Coast appetizer might be hazardous to customers' health. Especially worrisome is a variety of bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus, which can be fatal to people with liver disease and other underlying health problems.

Scientists are exploring many ways of making oysters safe, such as adjusting their storage temperature, heat shocking them, even zapping them with radiation. A team from Louisiana State University Medical Center in New Orleans decided to see if there was something people could add to oysters to wipe out the germs.

What better place to start than testing the stuff folks already put on them?

They outlined their findings Monday at a conference sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology.

The researchers experimented with the main ingredients of cocktail sauce - Tabasco and other Louisiana hot sauces, horseradish, lemon juice and ketchup.

'Some of the findings were a little astonishing to us. We had no idea these condiments would be so powerful,'' said Dr. Kenneth Aldridge, one of the researchers.

They found that hot sauce was the most potent. When dashed straight into a test tube of bacteria, it killed them all within a minute. Even diluted 16 to 1, it wiped them out within five minutes.

Horseradish and lemon juice worked moderately well; ketchup had little effect.

They also tested three other varieties of vibrio bacteria, as well as E. coli, shigella and salmonella. Hot sauce killed them, too.

Aldridge cautioned that his study is just a first step. No one knows how well cocktail sauce might work against bacteria that are inside oysters or whether it really can keep people from getting sick. More research is necessary to answer those questions.

Dr. Ken Pursell of the University of Illinois in Chicago, called the report ''pretty interesting,'' and agreed that the leap from test tubes to people is often a long one.

''You can inhibit bacteria in the laboratory with a lot of different things,'' he noted.

At the Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter, bar manager Terry Barker was skeptical for another reason.

''Cocktail sauce is for people who want to kill the taste,'' she said. ''True oyster eaters eat them without sauce. They use a little lemon, maybe.''