Campylobacter bacteria are a leading cause of food poisoning in the UK, causing at least 500,000 infections each year. Although these cases are rarely fatal, there’s a clear need to reduce illness and its associated costs caused by these bacteria.
The major source of infection is through eating undercooked poultry meat, but other sources, such as farm animals and water also contribute to the large number of infections. A concerted effort is underway to tackle the problem, from farm to the plate. Organisations including the Food Standards Agency, Defra and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council are co-funding research to better understand how Campylobacter infects chickens, and how it persists in the food chain.
Much of this research is focused on a better understanding of the bacteria and how they survive in different environments. One complication is that Campylobacter illness is caused by at least 20 different species of Campylobacter bacteria. Whilst the vast majority of infections are down to one well studied species, Campylobacter jejuni, an estimated 10% of cases are caused by a different species, Campylobacter coli. Much less is known about the biology of Campylobacter coli – including where it resides in the environment and how it infects us.
To address this, the Food Standards Agency has given a Strategic Research grant to a consortium led by Dr Arnoud van Vliet of the Institute of Food Research, to develop new tools to understand C. coli at the molecular and genetic level. In collaboration with The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) and the University of East Anglia, partners with IFR on the Norwich Research Park, and scientists at the University of Swansea, University of Liverpool and Public Health England, the researchers will carry out next generation genome sequencing of 500 genomes from Campylobacter coli strains. These strains will be collected from a wide range of sources including animals, foods, humans and a range of different environments.
When these genomes are analysed and compared, it should be possible to pick out genetic markers that identify strains from particular environmental niches, and possibly even predict why these strains prefer a particular environment.
These markers and other information that can be obtained from the first in depth look at the genome of C. coli will be invaluable tools for researchers studying these bacteria. They will help answer questions about what the main sources of C. coli infection are. Some research suggests that game, tripe and recreational swimming may be significant sources of infection – a major difference to Campylobacter jejuni. The knowledge obtained from this two-year study could be used to develop diagnostic tools to help confirm diagnose and track sources of C. coli contamination – a tool we don’t currently have.