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Little (more) known about E.coli

by Shara Rutberg

Scientists revealed a bit more information last week about the malevolent and mysterious pathogen that strikes fear into the guts of eaters worldwide: Escherichia coli O157:H7. During a conference last week in Monterey, a group of researchers from universities and government labs presented results from a $2 million series of studies funded by Salinas, Calif.-based Fresh Express.

So far, the pathogen has hidden most of its secrets from scientists like the best comic book villain. No one knows exactly how it hides on its host, how it spreads and if there is anything that speeds or stops its progress.

Though results of the nine research projects may have raised more questions than answers about the puzzling pathogen, one study might have found what might turn out to be the bloody glove in the case of the E. coli and lettuce — the knives workers use in the field to core lettuce. A team of researchers led by Michael Doyle, regents professor of food microbiology and director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, found that the tools could transfer E. coli from the soil into the lettuce. Doyle suggested that coring should be moved to the processing plants.

Another study shed light on the amazing powers of E. coli. Apparently, the pathogen can bust into a leaf's stoma, or pore, and hunker down in such a way that no amount of washing can oust it. Jorge Giron, assistant professor in the department of immunobiology at the University of Arizona studied how E. coli colonizes spinach plants. He found that, although he cannot explain how, the pathogen can actually open a stoma so it can enter a plant's leaf.

Other findings include: Flies might transfer E. coli from manure piles to plants. Ozone might be a more viable option than chlorine for removing E. coli. And, E. coli and other pathogens might have the ability to regenerate after they have been heat treated in compost heaps, even when other organisms are killed.

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