Microbiology Today February 2002

You are what you eat, and as most foods are closely associated with microbes in some way, either in their production, spoilage or as vehicles of disease, food microbiology is highly relevant to all our lives. The SGM has set up a new special interest Group which aims to promote scientific interaction and facilitate education in all aspects of food microbiology throughout the human and animal food chain. This issue of Microbiology Today celebrates the launch of the Food and Beverages Group with a collection of articles related to this fascinating subject.
* Food and beverages microbiology - a key concern for our future health [Acrobat PDF]
With the incidence of food-borne illness rising, a large proportion of food and drink spoiled by microbes and ever more mouths to feed in the world, there has never been a greater need for the skills of food microbiologists. The UK Food Standards Agency has a target of reducing the incidence of food-borne illness by 20% by 2006. Group Convener Tom Humphrey (Department of Clinical Virology, University of Bristol) explains how the new SGM body aims to play a part in furthering our knowledge of this crucial area of science.
* Human gut microbiology: the end of the food chain or the start of good health? [Acrobat PDF]
A huge number and diverse range of bacteria exist in the human gut. This microflora plays an important part in the digestive process and without it, our lives would be impossible. Sometimes the balance is altered and pathogens take over, leading to gastro-enteritis and sometimes chronic gut diseases. Scientists are now investigating whether eating certain products can stimulate the growth of the beneficial bacteria and improve our health, as Glenn Gibson (University of Reading) describes in this article about probiotics and prebiotics.
* Campylobacter spp: not quite the tender flowers we once thought they were [Acrobat PDF]
Campylobacters are a common cause of food and water-borne disease. Control of these bacteria in the food chain is proving difficult as they are found in the gut of most meat-producing animals, as well as in the environment. By exploring the physiology and behaviour of campylobacters outside the host, microbiologists are hoping to find ways of reducing the incidence of illness caused, as Tom Humphrey (University of Bristol) explains.
* Clostridia and food-borne disease [Acrobat PDF]
Clostridia are anaerobic, spore-forming bacteria. The spores can survive cooking and as a result, Clostridium perfringens is a common cause of food poisoning, particularly in institutional catering establishments where large quantities of meat or poultry are prepared several hours before serving and kept at the wrong temperature. Another more sinister member of this group is Clostridium botulinum, which produces toxin with severe effects when ingested - it can even kill. Cases of botulism are fortunately very uncommon, but care is needed when developing new products, especially the popular chilled, long-life convenience foods, that manufacturing processes are such that the disease remains a rare event. Mike Peck (Institute of Food Research) describes the current state of knowledge of the clostridia associated with food.
* Lactobacillus: occurrence and importance in non-dairy foods [Acrobat PDF]
Lactic acid bacteria are usually thought of in connection with fermented dairy products such as yoghurt or cheese. These bacteria are actually important in the production of a wide range of other foods such as salami, olives, dill pickles, fermented fish and even chocolate. Surprisingly, they also contribute to the characteristic flavours of wine, cider and some bakery products. Alan Varnam (University of North London) reveals the secrets of this group of organisms.
* Mushrooms - a matter of choice and spoiling oneself [Acrobat PDF]
The cultivated mushroom is both a microbe and a food. This presents interesting challenges to the mushroom industry as they have to provide the conditions that will allow optimum development of a product which ultimately self-destructs! Dan Eastwood and Kerry Burton of Horticulture Research International describe how quality is maintained and spoilage contained in the UK's biggest cash crop.
* The control of yellow fever: a centennial account [Acrobat PDF]
It is a century since yellow fever was shown to be due to a mosquito-borne virus. Philip Mortimer (Central Public Health Laboratory) describes the effect of this disease on history and tells the story of the successes and failures of scientists researching its cause, prevention and cure over the past 100 years. Today other, very rare haemorrhagic diseases like Nipah and Ebola make the headlines, yet yellow fever continues to pose a far greater threat to human health.
* Anthrax [Acrobat PDF]
The recent mailings of anthrax spores have caused widespread terror throughout the USA. Rick Titball of DSTL highlights current knowledge of Bacillus anthracis and speculates that the threat of bioterrorism using this organism may well stimulate further research.
Hot off the Press [Acrobat PDF] highlights some new developments in microbiological research published in the Society's journals - Microbiology, Journal of General Virology and International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. Topics covered include:

  • It's good to talk - research into quorum sensing in the biofilm bacteria associated with cystic fibrosis may lead to control measures
  • An ugly duckling - insect pathogen Helicosporidium parasiticum turns out to be an alga
  • Hitting the target - a bacterial enzyme may help in the fight against cancer
  • Fighting fire with fire - using viruses to combat cancer
  • Time to revise the whooping cough vaccine - new preventative measures as the disease reappears
  • Re-creating our past - a new hypothesis about the origins of life

Other items include:

  • Gradline [Acrobat PDF] - Bugs in space; Life Science Careers 2001 and yet more careers information
  • SchoolZone [Acrobat PDF] - SGM basic practical microbiology courses; post-16 summer school and the new education website www.microbiologyonline.org.uk

Last updated 29 May 2003