USDA grant funds study aimed at reducing food-borne illness caused by E. coli

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MSU AgBioResearch, Shannon ManningMichigan State University (MSU) has received a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop strategies to reduce the amount of E. coli released by cattle and, in effect, decrease the amount of foodborne illness in humans.

The project is being led by MSU AgBioResearch scientist Shannon Manning, who will work to reduce cattle’s fecal “shedding” of shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC).

“These infections are a national concern, particularly during outbreaks when public health agencies are rapidly trying to identify the sources to prevent additional infections,” said Manning, an assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at MSU. “The data generated through this project will aid in the development of STEC control methods that can be used to improve food safety.”

STEC is a leading cause of food-borne and waterborne infections, and most outbreaks are caused by contact with fecal material from cattle and other ruminant animals. Little is known, however, about the factors that affect shedding from these animals.

“More than 70,000 people become ill because of shiga toxin-producing E. coli every year,” said Roger Beachy, director of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), who visited MSU in March to make the grant award announcement. “Understanding how the bacteria contaminate water and food supplies will help prevent thousands of illnesses and improve the safety of the nation’s food.”

Manning and her team of researchers will examine the host, genetic, microbial and environmental factors associated with STEC shedding. Their work will include:

  • Identifying bacterial genotypes and epidemiological factors important for shedding in multiple herds.
  • Comparing the composition, diversity and function of the microbial communities within the digestive tracts and ruminal fluids of shedders and non-shedders.
  • Determining how STEC affects the bovine immune response to infection, identifying inhibitory compounds from non-shedding animals and developing strategies to decrease shedding. 

Multidisciplinary studies of this scope are required to better understand shedding of E. coli from cattle and to enhance detection methods and control strategies. The research team expects to develop new ideas for direct-fed antimicrobials, vaccines, therapies and other control strategies that can reduce the frequency and level of STEC shedding. It is anticipated that this will lead to a reduction in food contamination, transmission to humans and STEC-related illnesses.

The grant was awarded through the NIFA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, which supports research that promotes and enhances the scientific discipline of food safety. The overall aim of the initiative is to protect consumers from microbial, chemical and physical hazards that may occur during all stages of the food chain, from food production to consumption.

Photo: MSU AgBioResearch scientist, Shannon Manning

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