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PLoS One. 2013 Jul 30;8(7):e70643. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0070643. Print 2013.

Assessments of total and viable Escherichia coli O157:H7 on field and laboratory grown lettuce.

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Department of Food Science and Technology, University of California Davis, Davis, California, USA.


Leafy green produce has been associated with numerous outbreaks of foodborne illness caused by strains of Escherichia coli O157:H7. While the amounts of culturable E. coli O157:H7 rapidly decline after introduction onto lettuce in the field, it remains to be determined whether the reduction in cell numbers is due to losses in cell viability, cell injury and a subsequent inability to be detected by standard laboratory culturing methods, or a lack of adherence and hence rapid removal of the organism from the plants during application. To assess which of these options is most relevant for E. coli O157:H7 on leafy green produce, we developed and applied a propidium monoazide (PMA) real-time PCR assay to quantify viable (with PMA) and total (without PMA) E. coli O157:H7 cells on growth chamber and field-grown lettuce. E. coli O157:H7, suspended in 0.1% peptone, was inoculated onto 4-week-old lettuce plants at a level of approximately 10(6) CFU/plant. In the growth chamber at low relative humidity (30%), culturable amounts of the nontoxigenic E. coli O157:H7 strain ATCC 700728 and the virulent strain EC4045 declined 100 to 1000-fold in 24 h. Fewer E. coli O157:H7 cells survived when applied onto plants in droplets with a pipette compared with a fine spray inoculation. Total cells for both strains were equivalent to inoculum levels for 7 days after application, and viable cell quantities determined by PMA real-time PCR were approximately 10(4) greater than found by colony enumeration. Within 2 h after application onto plants in the field, the number of culturable E. coli ATCC 700728 was reduced by up to 1000-fold, whereas PCR-based assessments showed that total cell amounts were equivalent to inoculum levels. These findings show that shortly after inoculation onto plants, the majority of E. coli O157:H7 cells either die or are no longer culturable.

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