This article was produced and financed by The Research Council of Norway

E. coli bacteria survive easily in food-production facilities.(Photo: Colourbox)
E. coli bacteria survive easily in food-production facilities.(Photo: Colourbox)

Virus makes good E. coli bad

Some E. coli bacteria are harmless and some are dangerous from the outset. Then some become dangerous when they meet viruses. Scientists search for tools that will reduce this risk.

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The Research Council of Norway

The Research Council of Norway is a government agency responsible for awarding grands for research as well as promoting research and science. It also advises the government in matters related to research.

A group of Norwegian researchers has investigated whether viral infection can alter the properties of E. coli bacteria. At the same time they are trying out “disinfectants” that may reduce the risk of E. coli outbreaks caused by conditions in food-production facilities.

“It is well established that bacteria can obtain new genetic material from viruses. This may furnish bacteria with the genetic material needed to produce the toxins that make them more virulent and harmful to humans than they originally were,” says Anne Margrete Urdahl, a researcher working with E. coli-outbreak emergency planning at the Norwegian Veterinary Institute in Oslo.

Risk posed by biofilm

One source of bacteria in food is from biofilms that develop in facilities in food industries. A biofilm is an aggregate of many different types of microorganisms tightly packed together on a surface, encased in a self-produced layer of slime. This protects its contents from desiccation, disinfectants and the like, and they can survive in this state for a long time.

The ability of bacteria to form biofilm is tested on various substrates and at different temperatures. Here we see E. coli biofilm on steel at 20° C and on glass at 12° C. Colour has been added to the biofilm to make it easier to see. (Photo:Heidi Solheim, The Norwegian Veterinary Institute)
The ability of bacteria to form biofilm is tested on various substrates and at different temperatures. Here we see E. coli biofilm on steel at 20° C and on glass at 12° C. Colour has been added to the biofilm to make it easier to see. (Photo:Heidi Solheim, The Norwegian Veterinary Institute)

“Our project has researched the properties of isolated E. coli bacteria in biofilms,” explains Urdahl.

“We have found that E. coli from sheep can form biofilm at temperatures and on surface materials considered optimal for food production. Also, we have learnt how easy it is for different types of E. coli to survive in food-production facilities.”

Disinfectants of the future

Biofilm is one place where E. coli bacteria can infect each other with viruses that makes them more dangerous to humans.  Blocking the formation of biofilm in food-production facilities may help to keep food from becoming contaminated with pathogenic bacteria.

Escherichia coli bacteria (E. coli)

E. coli bacteria are common to the bacteria flora found in the large intestines of humans and other mammals. Most of these bacteria are harmless, while others can cause serious illness to humans. This happens when E. coli adhere to the intestine, which may cause diarrhoea. If the bacteria also produce the poisonous Shiga toxin, it may lead to renal failure and in some cases death of the affected individual.

“In order for bacteria to form biofilm, they must cooperate with each other. To cooperate, they need to communicate," Urdahl explains.

“If we manage to block this communication, we can prevent bacteria from forming biofilm where food is produced.”

The scientists are currently testing whether communication can be blocked using substances called furanones. These substances were originally isolated from a type of algae.

"We have tested variants synthesised at the University of Oslo, and we see that they have some effect. Substances of this type may become the ‘disinfectants’ of the future," hopes Urdahl.

In the Research Council of Norway there is optimism on how these findings can help to resolve key long-term challenges to Norwegian food industries.

"But the thematic areas of safe food and a sustainable supply chain are very much a global challenge. This research is therefore also of importance in an international context,” says Maan Singh Sidhu, senior adviser in the Council's Food Programme, under which this research was partially funded.

Translated by: Glenn Wells/Carol B. Eckmann

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