New imaging technology may help reduce outbreaks of E. coli 0157:H7 and other bacterial infections, according to USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists.

The fecal detection system is a real-time, electronically controlled optical instrument that creates images of carcasses and displays them on a nearby monitor. Even microscopic traces of fecal material can be detected in the images, according to recent University of Florida and Oklahoma State University trials.

The technology overcomes the limitations of visual inspection and helps meat packers identify which areas must be trimmed and which areas are free of contamination, researchers say. Acid washes, steam pasteurization and irradiation do not diminish the instrument's accuracy.

This particular instrument is optimal for whole-carcass imaging of beef cattle. Eventually, however, smaller versions may be developed to check smaller cuts of meat or employees' hands.

Based in Sebastian, FL, eMerge Interactive Inc. is commercializing the new technology on behalf of patent-holders at Iowa State University and ARS. The company is working with the packing industry to finalize product specifications and expects full-scale testing in packing plants to begin by early 2002.

Part of a small virus that attacks only bacteria acts like an antibiotic to destroy E. coli, researchers with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station have found.

This research provides a new approach for designing drugs to combat many serious bacterial diseases, including E. coli, pneumonia, staph infection, ear infections, Lyme's disease and cholera in humans, as well as bacterial diseases in pets, livestock and crops. So say Tom Bernhardt, biochemistry doctoral student, and Ing-Nang Wang, a lead investigator on the project.

Many disease-causing bacteria have developed antibiotic resistance, reducing the number of medicines available for treatment. Researchers fear continued resistance could result in epidemics of diseases once thought controllable.

This research found that a protein within the small virus, known as a “phage” in scientific circles, does the same thing to bacterial cell walls as antibiotics. It blocks the ability of the cell to make its tough outer wall so bacteria blow up or destroy themselves rather than divide into more cells. Dead bacterial cells mean an end to the illness.

This protein antibiotic answers how Q-beta and other small phage kill bacteria, says Ry Young, a biochemist at Texas A&M.

The research team expects pharmaceutical companies to further explore phages for new types of antibiotics. The small bit of protein responsible could be mimicked by a pharmaceutical company. And a drug could be made to be general against many bacteria or specific against a certain pathogen. Even better, it could easily be changed to overcome resistance.

Phages — which are not the same type of viruses that infect humans, animals and plants — are basically dormant bundles of DNA or RNA in protein coats until they come into contact with bacteria. They then replicate within the bacterial cell and, within a few minutes, explode it.

Now, with worldwide concern about antibiotic resistance, phages are finally gaining attention. Small phages appear to be a gold mine for protein antibiotics.

This is the second small phage found to make a protein antibiotic. Each of these phages makes a different type of cell wall poison, making each a potential new model for an antibiotic.

The team hopes to find new small phages and use them to identify more protein antibiotics that could be developed into practical medicines by the pharmaceutical industry.

For more information, contact Tom Bernhardt at 979/845-2853 or Young at ryland@tamu.edu.

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