(July 11, 2016) -- In a new study published in Frontiers in Microbiology, Mark Eppinger, assistant professor in the Department of Biology at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) describes innovative strategies to track disease-causing pathogens like E. coli. Eppinger hopes his research will aid in halting and preventing large-scale outbreaks.
“When there’s an outbreak of human pathogenic E. coli, a timely response is very important,” he said. “Usually, at first no information is available about where the disease originated.”
Eppinger, a member of the UTSA South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, calls the method he developed at UTSA a form of whole genome sequence typing of outbreak strains. According to the researcher, each outbreak features unique characteristics. The outbreak strains have subtle traits that make them distinguishable from other strains, which makes it possible for Eppinger to compare and contrast them to other outbreaks.
He likens the investigation to looking at a parking lot full of the same blue car. They all look very similar, but Eppinger is looking for the tiniest differences such as a dent, a scratch or a broken tail light.
“No detail is too small,” he said. “We can use these differences to trace the outbreak back to its contaminated source by looking to see if these traits existed in other reported outbreaks of the same pathogen.”
Finding similarities between outbreaks allows for the pathogen to be traced back to a certain country or region, or even to a singular location. The more quickly investigators can find the source of an outbreak, the faster they can contain the outbreak.
Eppinger’s strategies can also aid in identifying how lethal the pathogen can be. In his study, he focused on outbreaks of E. coli, which has recently affected restaurants like Chipotle and companies like Totino’s, which sells frozen pizza products.
“Some outbreaks can be more severe than others,” he said. “As a result of the 2006 outbreak, which spread through spinach, nearly half the people effected were hospitalized and a large portion had permanent kidney damage.”
By studying strains from different past E. coli outbreaks with his techniques, Eppinger is able to measure the amount of toxin produced in each strain, which is a direct mediator of disease and shows how severe the resulting illness could be.
“In terms of outbreak investigation, you can ask a person where they’ve eaten, where they work and if they’ve traveled recently,” Eppinger said. “If we get an outbreak strain, we can map it directly to other outbreak strains and pinpoint the origin. The answer is there in these tiny details.”
Read Mark Eppinger’s study “Whole Genome Sequencing for Genomics-Guided Investigations of Escherichia coli O157:H7 Outbreaks.”
Learn more about the UTSA South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Learn more about the UTSA Department of Biology.
Throughout the summer, UTSA offers more than 60 camps in science, engineering, architecture, sports, music, writing, language, culture and more.
Various locations, Main and Downtown Campuses
Chat with members of the Downtown Campus Initiative Task Force about changes taking place as the Downtown Campus grows and transforms to offer a comprehensive living and learning experience. Table topics will include curriculum changes, orientation updates, transportation, food and living options.
Frio Street Building Commons Area, Downtown Campus
UTSA and the San Antonio Express-News will jointly host this town hall meeting to discuss Unequal Justice in Bexar County and in Texas.
Buena Vista Street Building Theater (BVB 1.326), Downtown Campus
Experience a fun, interactive week at UTSA as new students and their families take the first steps to becoming a Roadrunner.
Various locations, Main Campus and Downtown Campuses
Finance and Budget Modeling Task Force presents a panel presentation of experts from 4 universities with experience in incentive-based budgeting. All UTSA campus community is invited to attend and be informed about budgeting processes.
Business Building Richard Liu Auditorium (BB 2.01.02), Main Campus
This event showcases the work of trainees, faculty, staff and students from multiple disciplines and public health agencies across San Antonio.
H-E-B Student Union Ballroom (HSU 1.104), Main Campus
This exhibit highlights the UTSA Special Collections, which includes historic photographs from Texas, San Antonio and UTSA history.
UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures, Hemisfair Campus
Come learn about the benefits available before the enrollment period July 15-31.
Business Building University Room (BB 2.06.04), Main Campus
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