Microbiologist Amy Charkowski and graduate student Abdulah Harris observe the
of a confocal microscope being used to examine an alfalfa sprout root that
been experimentally contaminated with Salmonella. The microbes show up
green or blue on the computer screen.
|Fresh and colorful alfalfa sprouts,
crisp and crunchy mung bean sprouts, or any of the half dozen other kinds of
raw sprouts sold in America today add taste and texture to salads, sandwiches,
soups, omelets, and other dishes. What's more, sprouts can give you plenty of
protein, a lot of fiber, and a generous amount of antioxidants like vitamin C.
But those same sprouts--if not grown and processed under hygienic
conditions--can also leave you with a nasty case of food poisoning caused by
pathogenic microbes such as Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7.
Now, investigations by Agricultural Research
Service microbiologist Amy O. Charkowski may help make sprouts safer. She
is with the Food Safety and Health Research Unit at Albany, California.
ARS technician Chester Sarreal
separates alfalfa seeds by color
and shape to determine whether
certain seed characteristics are
correlated with higher bacterial contamination levels.
| Solutions for Small Farms
In the United States, the delicious, sprouted seeds of red clover, broccoli,
wheat, radish, soybean, mung bean, alfalfa, and other vegetables or grains
"are produced primarily by small operations," says Charkowski. Many
are family-run. These 'sprouters,' as they are nicknamed in the industry, may
not be able to afford expensive techniques to kill foodborne pathogens.
"Also," notes Charkowski, "many sprouters run organic
operations." That means they simply won't use irradiation or another
option--bathing sprouts in a chlorine-containing chemical called calcium
hypochlorite. This compound--the same white powder that's used to disinfect
swimming pools--is recommended by the Food and Drug Administration for
The FDA currently advises all consumers to cook sprouts before eating them. And
it recommends that the young, the elderly, and those with compromised immune
systems should not eat sprouts.
Salmonella and E. coli can flourish in the warm, moist indoor
environment in which seeds are forced to sprout. Typically, unsprouted seeds
are placed on trays or in rotating drums. There, they are kept warm and are
periodically moistened with a fine mist of clean water.
There are many opportunities for the seeds to become contaminated with the
microbes before they're even purchased by sprouters. Salmonella or E.
coli could be harbored in bird droppings, in manure applied to fields as
fertilizer, in contaminated water that's used to irrigate fields, or perhaps in
dirt left over in improperly cleaned seed-sorting machinery. The pathogens
might also live in droppings of rodents that eat seeds stored in bags, bins, or
Microbes' Preferred Attack Sites
Charkowski's studies with sprouted seeds of radish, alfalfa, broccoli, and mung
bean may yield tactics that sprouters can use to ensure their products are free
of Salmonella and E. coli. Experiments in her laboratory at the
ARS Western Regional Research Center have revealed that these pathogens prefer
to attack the roots andsecondarilythe seedcoats. Her studies, which
required tracking the microbes' progress in thousands of sprouts, are among the
first few to reveal the pathogens' priorities.
Related tests may indicate what sprout-produced compounds--such as amino
acids--inadvertently nurture the attacking microbes. In addition, the
experiments should show whether harmless bacteria could be applied to the
sprouts to deprive the pathogens of the vital compounds.
"We might be able to undermine the harmful pathogens," says
Charkowski, "if we can use beneficial bacteria to outcompete them in the
race for essential compounds."
Salmonella Genes Scrutinized
In other approaches, Charkowski is probing the genetic makeup of
Salmonella. Her intent: To discover which genes Salmonella
"expresses"--that is, activates--when it contaminates sprouts.
For one group of experiments, she's producing genetically engineered lab
strains of Salmonella by randomly knocking out genes. Then, she's
determining whether removing those genes will reduce the microbe's ability to
In a second set of genetic engineering investigations, Charkowski and
postdoctoral fellow Jeri D. Barak will track the genes that Salmonella
expresses as it colonizes the sprouts. They will do that with Salmonella
that contain a gene borrowed from a jellyfish. The jellyfish gene causes
Salmonella to fluoresce a bright green whenever a Salmonella gene
In a competition among ARS labs nationwide, Charkowski won special ARS funding
that allows Barak to join in this genetic research effort.
Less Effective Salmonella Found
"So far," Charkowski reports, "one of our most interesting
strains of genetically modified Salmonella is only about one-tenth as
effective in colonizing sprouts as conventional Salmonella." But
which of Salmonella's 4,000 to 5,000 genes are missing or disabled in
that strain? Help in identifying those genes--and their makeup, or
sequence--may come from biotechnologists who are part of an international
venture to sequence Salmonella genes.
In the meantime, Charkowski's quest to find out which Salmonella genes
are crucial to successful attacks on sprouts is likely unique. "Once we
know which Salmonella genes are critical in an invasion," she says,
"we may be able to develop a strategy to activate and amplify the natural
protective response by the sprouts."
"The genes that Salmonella activates when it invades sprouts,"
says Charkowski, "are likely the same as those it uses when it colonizes
other fresh produce and perhaps meats and poultry. That means the food safety
strategies developed from our genetic studies may help protect these other
foods from Salmonella, as well."By
Marcia Wood, Agricultural
Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Food Safety, an ARS National Program (#108)
described on the World Wide Web at
Amy O. Charkowski is in the USDA-ARS
Food Safety and Health Research Unit, Western
Regional Research Center, 800 Buchanan St., Albany, CA 94710; phone (510)
559-5647, fax (510) 559-5948.
"Safer Sprouts" was published in the
issue of Agricultural Research magazine.