The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne illness and disease each year in the United States alone.
North Dakota State’s department of microbiological sciences invited David Baumler, an assistant professor of molecular food safety microbiology at the University of Minnesota, to describe how his research team simulates growth conditions of different bacteria in various hosts and niches to predict bacterial sustainability in hopes of creating safer foods globally and to help lower these numbers.
These hosts include swine, lymph nodes in cattle and poultry. The team conducts experiments that validate their models and identify obscure unique pathways for the bacteria to absorb nutrients like carbon, phosphorus and sulfur.
All of Baumler’s research is rooted in biological engineering. The team used the same tools to “explore foodborne pathogens” in order to “combat and kill them.”
First, the team collects genome information about the bacteria and submits this to the Department of Energy Systems Biology Knowledgebase (KBase).
KBase is a piece of software designed to identify which proteins are present in the bacteria and predicts how they will react with nutrients present.
With this information in hand, the team can run experiments and see if these predictions are true.
After cross-referencing the predictions created by KBase and the team’s experiments, they generate a model.
This model can be used to begin to simulate how the bacteria reproduces and potentially thrive on high-risk foods, such as raw or undercooked meat — like that in a sketchy taco from an unmarked food truck — and poultry, unpasteurized milk, raw or undercooked eggs.
This information is then relayed back to the food industry to prevent these pathogens from spreading and can be used to quickly identify which type of bacteria is causing the problem.
The research team mainly focused on E. coli and listeria monocytogens. According to the CDC, E. coli can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia. Listeria can cause listeriosis, which can lead to severe blood infections.
E. coli O157:H7, one of the specific strains they studied, was the strain that broke out in multiple states in 2006 and was found on spinach, killing three and hospitalizing over 100.
Besides studying foodborne pathogens, Baumler also has a passion for chili peppers and their nutritional and microbial values. He even performed a solo rendition of his original “Chili Pepper Song” to everyone present in the lecture hall in Van Es.