Secrets of the pathogens: Biological science researcher awarded grant to study major cause of foodborne illness -
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Secrets of the pathogens: Biological science researcher awarded grant to study major cause of foodborne illness

Associate Professor of Biological Science Mohamed Fakhr is an expert in the study of the molecular microbiology of foodborne bacterial pathogens. Recently, Fakhr received word that he has been awarded a $200,000 Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to support his research project Transcriptomic Analysis of Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter coli Survival under Aerobic Conditions. This two-year grant is slated to run from Jan. 1, 2021, through Dec. 31, 2022, with the possibility of a third-year extension.

A leading cause of foodborne illness

Campylobacter on a laboratory plate
Campylobacter on a plate

Campylobacter is a major bacterial pathogen and one of the leading causes of foodborne illness in the United States and other countries around the world. This pathogen is highly prevalent in various retail meats, especially poultry, making it a high food-safety risk for consumers. Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter coli are the two main species of concern to human health; indeed, 95% of human infections are caused by Campylobacter species. together, they cause approximately 95% of human infections.

This microaerophilic bacterium grows only under low oxygen concentrations and, therefore, should not survive at normal atmospheric oxygen levels. Scientists, including, Fakhr, are puzzled, however, because Campylobacter exhibits unexpected aerotolerancy. This means it can survive, grow and be transmitted even under the aerobic conditions associated with processing and storing meat, as well as on surfaces with which such meat comes into contact.

“Recently published work from our laboratory at The University of Tulsa revealed that approximately 47% of the screened Campylobacter isolates from retail meats were aerotolerant, whereas 24% were hyper-aerotolerant,” Fakhr noted. “This is, to say the least, very alarming from a food-safety perspective.”

Unlocking pathogenic secrets

Students Ellie Pace and Breanna McNaughton testing samples in the lab while wearing face masks and blue gloves
Students Ellie Page and Breanna McNaughton conducting research in Professor Fakhr’s lab

Very little is understood, however, about Campylobacter survival. “While this bacterium is known to harbor genes involved in tolerance to oxidative stress, the genes specific for Campylobacter aerotolerance have yet to be identified,” said Fakhr.

The main focus of Fakhr’s research will be to conduct transcriptomic analysis using RNA-Seq Illumina technology of the survival under aerobic and microaerobic conditions of six Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter coli strains previously isolated from retail meats and sequenced in his laboratory.

Seven members of Professor Fakhr's lab standing side by side and smiling at the camera
Anand Karki, Sadaf Kouhi, Kaylee Ballard, Claudia Harper, Leena Neyaz, Aisha Hassan and Mohamed Fakhr

“This next-generation sequencing technology will enable us to identify potential genes involved in the aerotolerancy of this pathogen,” explained Fakhr. “By isolating those genes, we should be able to determine the possible pathways this foodborne pathogen might be using to survive on retail meats under aerobic conditions.” If this work is successful, it will suggest possible intervention strategies to reduce Campylobacter’s aerotolerancy and, thereby, curtail its survival on and contamination of retail meats. “My hope,” said Fakhr, “is that the safety risk will decrease and consumers’ health will be better protected.”

Fakhr will be the principal investigator on this project. He will be assisted by Anand Karki, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in biological science at TU. “I am really glad to be able to include this brilliant young man in my research,” Fakhr said. “Anand played a significant role in generating the preliminary results that helped me submit this proposal to the USDA. It will be great to have his help with this project because he is already familiar with the research topic and is well trained to perform the proposed investigations.” Fakhr also expects to be able to train several undergraduate students in laboratory research methods so that they can assist with the work.

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