Tracking path of virulent bacteria via the web

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Cornell University food science, engineering and computer science students have joined forces to develop a web-based software and a database to track and compare genetic footprints, or characteristics, of bacteria.

For scientists who track the spread and sources of virulent bacteria, the students' PathogenTracker software reduces from days and hours to minutes the time spent making tedious strain comparisons.

"Before PathogenTracker, in this laboratory we were using three different databases and two spreadsheets," says Martin Wiedmann, Cornell assistant professor of food science. The food scientists sought the help of the computer science and engineering students, he says, because, "we knew what we wanted but we didn't know how to put the idea together."

The new database is novel in that it allows easy comparisons of strain characteristics and visual images of molecular subtypes (DNA fingerprints). The tool thus allows researchers quickly to assemble strain subtype data from different laboratories in order to analyze outbreaks and epidemics of many different infectious diseases and to assess the biodiversity of bacteria in general.

Before PathogenTracker, scientists used off-the-shelf database programs to track food-borne pathogens. But in 1999 Wiedmann first used his then-primitive database to help limit the death toll from a listeriosis outbreak. Between October 1998 and February 1999, more than 100 people became ill and 21 people died around the country after eating hot dogs contaminated with a rare strain of Listeria monocytogenes -- the deadliest of all food-borne bacteria.

Wiedmann's work allowed the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta to determine the cause of the outbreak. Consequently, the contaminated hot dogs were immediately recalled in what was to become one of history's largest food recalls. That early version of PathogenTracker found that seven of the 15 samples had identical genetic

Contact: Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Cornell University News Service

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