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UD researchers explore ways to prevent future salmonella outbreaks

Adolfo Félix / Unsplash

Recalls of lettuce and other leafy greens because of new contaminations seem to be more common.

Recent large outbreaks of salmonella and e-coli in romaine lettuce raise the question- why are these contaminations happening now?

Researchers at the University of Delaware may have found one reason. Bacteria have evolved to force their way past a plant’s defenses.

Harsh Bais is an associate professor at UD. He explains these pathogens can use the same holes the plant uses to breath, even after the plant closes them up for protection.

“You are seeing these opportunist pathogens to gain an entry actually. This was surprising to us because this is a feature that you would see in classical plant pathogens, you would not expect to see this in bacteria that use this plant as a vector. So these are not their real hosts.”

The researchers are examining a way to use a friendly bacteria to keep the plants on guard against these dangerous pathogens.

Bais says this bacteria is superior to other methods of bolstering the plant's defense.

“The added advantage of using a biocontroller, a benign bacteria is that it’s also a plant growth promotion bacteria, meaning it acts as a biofertilizer for plants. So you’re kind of getting a double advantage, you’re preventing a pathogen while at the same time you’re also promoting growth in the plant.”

The team hopes to figure out how to use these friendly bacteria on a larger scale to keep bacteria from continuing to infect these plants.

Another point of infection is through contaminated water. 

Researchers say that identifying sources of contamination and preventing them from happening will keep us from having to throw out a bag of lettuce every month.

Roman Battaglia grew up in Portland, Ore, and now reports for Delaware Public Media as a Report For America corps member. He focuses on politics, elections and legislation activity at the local, county and state levels.