En Huang, Ph.D., an associate professor at the UAMS Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health Department of Health Sciences, has received a three-year, $1 million dollar grant from the USDA to research antibiotic resistance in American vegetables. His team consists of Sun Hee Moon, Ph.D., and Se-Ran Jun, Ph.D., from UAMS; along with Xinhui Li, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse; Erin DiCaprio, Ph.D., of the University of California-Davis; and Xu Yang, Ph.D., of California State Polytechnic University-Pomona.
The objective of this study is to investigate why some bacteria isolated from retail vegetables in the United States are resistant to beta-lactam antibiotics. Beta-lactam antibiotics include penicillin and penicillin derivatives, and until 2003, more than half of all antibiotics by sales were of the beta-lactam variety. They remain the most common and therefore important type of antibiotic, so it is crucial to prevent bacteria from becoming resistant wherever possible.
“Food is an important vehicle for transmitting foodborne microorganisms,” Huang said. “Since most vegetables are consumed when they’re raw or after only being minimally cooked, if present, those antibiotic-resistant bacteria could potentially harm people. Therefore, there’s an urgent need to understand the role of fresh produce in the transmission of antibiotic resistance.”
Vegetables are not usually treated with antibiotics, so the fact that some antibiotic resistant bacteria have been isolated from them suggests that they are being contaminated by some other source, such as soil amendments or irrigation water containing antibiotic-resistant organisms. The researchers will collect 1,200 vegetables, 400 from each of the three participating states, Arkansas, California, and Wisconsin, to determine the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the factors that contribute to their transmission in the vegetable production and supply chains. They’ll also be testing soil and water samples directly from the farms that produce the vegetables. Their findings will then be presented to the public and agriculture industry to improve food safety awareness.
The project will combine the efforts of researchers from institutions in Arkansas, Wisconsin and California, and Huang is enthusiastic about leading the venture.
“On the team we’ll have microbiologists, bioinformaticians, extension specialists that will help with this project,” he said. “We’ll have a well-rounded study.”
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