Penn State has very impressive e. coli collection

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STATE COLLEGE -- Chobi DebRoy's lab is a haven for E. coli bacteria. No wonder she has bottles of disinfectant sitting all over the counter tops.

But there was no spinach lying around, or any other food, for that matter. The roughly 70,000 specimens of E. coli, housed in glass vials stored safely in freezers and steel cabinets in the back of her research center, are part of what Penn State University calls one of the largest such collections in the country.

Fittingly, Ms. DebRoy is a stickler for cleanliness. She tries to skip salad bars and regularly washes her hands.

"Yeah, I'm a clean freak," Ms. DebRoy said, smiling.

Ms. DebRoy heads the university's Gastroenteric Disease Center, the fancy name for a place that studies bacteria that make a person sick to his stomach. Government entities, municipalities, businesses, farms, petting zoos and other organizations send samples there to determine the presence of bacteria that could make a person or animal ill.

It used to be called the E. coli Reference Center, but recently changed its name to account for research into other kinds of bacteria.

But E. coli is still the center's specialty, with specimens dating to 1958. Ms. DebRoy hasn't been involved in the recent investigation over E. coli-tainted spinach, although she has taken part in similar investigations.

The recent tainted spinach outbreak sickened 187 people nationwide, and one person died. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the E. coli strain "O157:H7" was the source of the contamination.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave a partial go-ahead last week to eat spinach again, saying the leafy green vegetable was "as safe as it was before this event." A warning, though, remains in place for spinach recalled by Natural Selection Foods LLC, of San Juan Bautista, Calif., which covered 34 brands in packages with "best if used by" dates between Aug. 17 and Oct. 1.

Ms. DebRoy called the recent outbreak a classic case of E. coli transmission. The bacteria can be killed in vegetables and meat if they are cooked at a very high temperature, "but spinach, I can understand why people don't want to cook it," she said.

The bacteria, though, are almost everywhere, including "good E. coli," which live in digestive systems and help provide vitamins and other nutrients.

A big part of the jobs of Ms. DebRoy and research associate Mike Davis is to determine which strains make people or animals sick. About 20 percent of the specimens in the Penn State collection can cause illness, though they keep them all for research and to track changes over time.

"It's nice to be able to go back, even though you receive it and do tests and get negatives on the sample," Mr. Davis said. "You never know if you might be able to use it as a resource in the future."

Mr. Davis and Ms. DebRoy talk enthusiastically about their profession, their eyes lighting up when they speak about modern testing methods. The names of E. coli strains roll off their tongues in quick succession, like baseball fans reading stats.

Their work is conducted in buildings near Beaver Stadium, far from the hubbub of campus, surrounded by grass fields, some of which are used as parking lots during football games.

The bacteria are stored in a trailer that sits on concrete pylons, similar in size to portable classrooms set up at crowded schools. Much of the testing is done there, and a large, glass-enclosed contraption protects workers when they must open E. coli specimens and work with them.

The work areas are separated by doors with signs with the ominous phrase "Danger -- Biohazard material in use -- E. Coli."

"Have I ever gotten sick? Maybe once, a long time ago," said Mr. Davis, 55, who is retiring in December after 32 years at the E. coli center. "From here? I don't know. Who can tell?"


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