The deadly pathogen known as E. coli O104:H4, which devastated northern Europe last year, can itself be killed, San Francisco-based AvidBiotics Corporation announced Wednesday.


Dean Scholl, who leads a team of scientists from AvidBiotics and the U.S. Department of Agriculture,  said the group has created a highly targeted bactericidal protein to kill the life-threatening foodborne E. coli O104 strain.   

Genome sequencing of  E. coli O104 is the key to what the company calls “rapid development of a targeted antimicrobial agent against this emerging pathogen.”  In other words, O101:H4 gives up the very information that is used to kill it.

Scholl told Food Safety News the antibacterial Purocin™ protein technology will likely be deployed both as food additive and eventually for therapeutic use in humans.

“From a food safety standpoint, we are dealing with it as a food additive,” Scholl says.  As an additive it would give beef processors another option as a intervention strategy.

“In collaboration with scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we’ve now shown that we can quickly generate such Purocin™ proteins against an emerging pathogen using only data acquired from its genome sequence, without necessarily having immediate access to the pathogen itself,” Scholl said.   “This technology, in combination with the ever-increasing speed in which genome sequences can be generated and DNA synthesized, should provide a valuable tool for responding to newly emerging, re-emerging, and ever-changing bacterial threats.”

AvidBiotics first used it Purocin ™ protein technology to target the more common threat of E. coli O157:H7. Scholl says his team decided to show it could quickly take out emerging bacteria by using the genome sequencing “to target itself.”

Scholl says his team will next turn its attention to the pathogenic Shiga toxin-producing (pSTEC) serotypes that are going to be banned from ground beef later this year.  Those include: O26, O111, O103, O121, O45 and O145.

With its announcement, AvidBiotics released a scientific paper that expands on the protein platform. “This O-antigen tailspike-R-type pyocin strategy provides a platform to respond rapidly to emerging pathogens upon the availability of the pathogen’s genome sequence.”

“They tend to be very specific,” Scholl said.

Germany and France last spring both experienced outbreaks of  the nasty strain of E. coli O104:H4 that were marked by high numbers developing hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).   Fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt, germinated for sprouts, were eventually found to be the likely source of the rare bacteria.

“It was a strain that was off the radar screen,” Scholl added. There were a number of factors that caused the team to turn their attention to O1O4, including the fact that the Rapid genome sequencing data was publicly available.

The E. coli O104 strain, which turned up in Germany in spring 2011, was ultimately responsible for close to 4,000 illnesses and at least 50 deaths. Nearly 900 developed HUS.


Image source: E. coli O104:H4 outbreak strain from the Robert Koch Institute.