Infections from zoonotic pathogens are normally associated with consumption of contaminated meat and poultry foodstuffs, or from direct contact with farm animals. This is because animals are the normal hosts for the pathogens, but many are not limited to animals. Some are well adapted to survival outside their hosts and can take advantage of favourable conditions elsewhere, for example on the roots of plants. In recent years, high profile food-borne outbreaks have occurred from consumption of contaminated fresh fruit and vegetables, such as spinach, sprouted seeds and melons. Contamination of food crops is most likely to arise from irrigation water or from wildlife in fields. Fortunately outbreaks and infections from these sources are relatively rare, especially in countries such as the UK that adhere to stringent agronomic practices.
Researchers in the CoZEE network investigate how food-borne zoonotic bacteria interact with plants and use them as hosts to grow. Our research has shown that there are many similarities between zoonotic pathogens and plant pathogens in their plant-microbe interactions. It is an intriguing area and has broadened our knowledge about the life stages of zoonotic pathogens outside their normal animal hosts. We are also interested in naturally occurring bacteria in the soil and in association with plants and how they compare to bacteria normally associated with farm animals. An understanding of the genetic differences tells us about the genetic basis to adaptation in different ecological habitats. Obtaining information on the molecular interactions will, in the long term, enable us to implement targeted solutions to reduce or remove the pathogens from our food. Research in the CoZEE network focuses on enteric bacteria including E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella enterica.