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Will This Be the End of 'Hamburger Disease?'

Hamburger disease, a debilitating form of food poisoning, may be a thing of the past. New findings from an international research collaboration conducted by the French National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA), involving the Université de Montréal are the first to show how the contaminating E.coli bacterium is able to survive in the competitive environment of a cow's intestine by scavenging specific food sources. Published in this month's Environmental Microbiology, and featured in Nature Reviews Microbiology, this study may lead to non-medicinal methods for eradicating this invasive bug.

"We studied E.coli O157:H7, which is the most prevalent species of bacteria associated with larger outbreaks," says Josée Harel, co-author of the study and director of the Groupe de Recherche sur les Maladies Infectieuses du Porc at the Université de Montréal's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. "These outbreaks have been associated with direct contact with the farm environment and with the consumption of meat, raw milk and dairy products. Reduction or eradication of O157:H7 in cows will lead to a substantial decrease in food contamination and consequential human infections."

O157:H7, a wily bacteria

The intestine is a complex environment with a high number and diversity of bacteria. Most of these bugs are not harmful and many contribute to proper bowel function. However, your guts are a battleground for wars between these species as they engage in a struggle to obtain carbon, nitrogen and other energy sources. Those that win the battle for resources survive and multiply while the losers disappear.

Harel and her collaborators' from France's Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique and Lallemand Animal Nutrition, first step was to demonstrate that O157:H7 does in fact thrive in the bovine intestine. Once this was established, they went on to determine why these particular bacteria find the cow intestine such a great place to live. They found that O157:H7 is unusual because it can forage nitrogen from ethanolamine, a chemical present in the cow's intestine. Because other bacteria cannot process ethanolamine, O157:H7 has this source of nutrition to itself. "The ability of O157:H7 to use ethanolamine as a source of nitrogen gives it the nutritional and competitive advantage to survive," says Harel.
 
 

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