Why we need to discover faster approaches for detecting E. coli

By Michelle Ponto, Frontiers science writer

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the two E. coli outbreaks that occurred from food eaten at a Chipotle Mexican Grills in December 2015 are now contained. It resulted in 60 people infected with the outbreak strain of STEC 026 across 11 states.

No one died in this recent outbreak, however 12 were hospitalized. Outbreaks of diseases due to E. coli contamination of food are quite common. Scientists, like Chitrita (Chobi) Debroy, Clinical Professor and Director of the E. coli Reference Center in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at Penn State, are hoping to detect the E. coli strains that cause diseases quickly to alleviate the problem.

Debroy and her team are dedicated to finding faster, accurate and inexpensive ways to detect the pathogenic strains of E. coli to minimize the sufferings and geographical extent of the outbreaks if they do occur. She says rapid and accurate molecular methods are critically needed in order to detect and trace pathogenic E. coli in food and animals as pathogenic E. coli strains can cause a large number of diseases in both humans and animals.

“The Food and Drug Administration is trying to distinguish these strains real-time by sequencing these organisms in order to classify and track them quickly,” she said.

She says in addition to trying to distinguish the strains at the moment they occur, another problem is that these strains were classified a long time ago and the nomenclature that was put forward is misleading as many of the strains have exactly the same nucleotide sequence.

 Looking for solutions to a growing problem

Looking at the issues, it’s obvious that new approaches are needed in order for the FDA and labs to become more effective and efficient to contain outbreaks. This is why she, Dr. Pina Fratamico and Dr. David S. Needleman from the USDA-Eastern Regional Research Center, PA decided it was time to launch a Frontiers Research Topic on the area.

“We held a conference at Penn State on typing and characterization of E. coli where people from WHO and public health labs from all over the world attended,” said Debroy. “The goal of the conference was to try to decide on how to proceed on the detection of E. coli strains.”

Debroy says the conference was so needed that it was then the she and her fellow topic editors decided to launch the Frontiers Research Topic titled “Emerging Approaches for Typing, Detection, Characterization, and Traceback of Escherichia coli.” They are hoping researchers from around the world will submit an abstract or a manuscript to help find new solutions.

Dedicated to detecting, typing and characterizing E. coli

At Penn State, Debroy works with E. coli the pathogenic strains that can cause diseases in humans and animals, and is involved in detecting the pathogenic strains and distinguishing the pathogenic strains from the non-pathogenic strains.  E-coli strains have been classified into 188 different O-types and H-types based on the antigens which are present on the surface of the bacteria. It’s a daunting task especially as there are a number of ambiguities in serotyping that still need to be resolved. In addition, her lab has also discovered new diseases that are caused by E. coli that were not known before.

“We were first to report that these E. coli strains can cause bronchopneumonia in animals and necrotizing pneumonia in cats and tigers, so the research also leads to different recognition of these strains for different diseases,” she said.

Solving these ambiguities in serotyping, revising the E. coli nomenclature and finding ways to apply new technology to enable molecular serotyping and the detection of E. coli are just a few of the problems she is hoping the Frontiers Research Topic will shed a light on.

Another area of focus within the topic is establishing bioinformatics pipelines to hand all the data and looking how genome sequencing can provide opportunities to study the evolution and emergence of pathogenic E. coli strains.

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