UNR meat researchers look to overcome e-coli with viruses

RENO, NV (KOLO) Meat recalls are not uncommon. Once stores or public health officials get word or diagnose an illness related to the meat, it is pulled from shelves.

It is estimated meat recalls costs the manufacturer on average $10,000,000 in direct costs. That doesn't take into account the human toll when someone is hospitalized or even dies from food poisoning.

Many times the culprit is e-coli bacteria.

Currently the industry uses ultra violet light and chemicals to kill the bacteria. But researchers at UNR's Department of Agriculture believe more can be done.

Amilton deMellow is a meat science professor at the school. He says by using viruses, or bacteriophages, to attack the e-coli, meat contamination by e-coli could be cut by 90%. He says the bacteriophages look for and latch on to the specific bacteria.

“They inject their genetic material combined with some mechanisms of the bacteria,” says deMellow. “So they start assembling small phages, little baby phages right here,” he says as he draws on the wet board. “Bacteria cannot hold them inside anymore. Eventually these bacteria are going to burst,” he says.

Once the bacterium bursts, it's destroyed. That's a brief biology lesson from the professor.

In deMellow's research, the bacteriophages are designed to go after what's called the "Big Six". These are e-coli strains that have been associated with outbreaks involving undercooked meat, and may be building a tolerance to current decontamination methods.

In his lab he has all the elements to test the hypothesis-- meat, the 'Big Six" e-coli strains, and the bacteriophages to attack those strains.

In nearly 20 years the "Big Six" have caused more than 2,000 illnesses, nearly 500 hospitalizations and nine deaths.

Treatment of bacteriophages along with U.V could prove a game changer for the beef industry, as well as families that love their burgers and BBQ.

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