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Research shows how Salmonella flourishes

Researchers in the U.K. are studying Salmonella and how it behaves when it enters a new environment

Norwich, U.K. – Scientists at both the Institute of Food Research (IFR) and Campden BRI are studying what Salmonella bacteria do when they enter a new environment before they reproduce themselves.

The scientists, reports the IFR website, say their research will help provide clues to finding new ways to reduce Salmonella transmission through the food chain and prevent human illness.

Bacteria behaviours

Bacteria can multiply rapidly, potentially doubling every 20 minutes in ideal conditions. However, this exponential growth phase is preceded by a period known as lag phase, where no increase in cell number is seen.

Lag phase was first identified in the 19th Century. Scientists then assumed bacteria needed it to prepare to exploit new environmental conditions. Beyond this, surprisingly little was known about lag phase, other than bacteria are metabolically active in this period. But exactly what are bacteria doing physiologically during this period?

Lag phase

To fill in this knowledge gap, researchers at IFR and colleagues at Campden BRI developed a simple and robust system for studying the biology of Salmonella during lag phase. In this system, lag phase lasts about two hours, but the cells sense their new environment remarkably quickly, and within four minutes switch on a specific set of genes, including some that control the uptake of specific nutrients.

For example, one nutrient accumulated is phosphate, which is needed for many cellular processes, and a gene encoding a phosphate transporter was the most upregulated gene during the first four minutes of lag phase. The cellular uptake mechanisms for iron were also activated during lag phase, and are needed for key aspects of bacterial metabolism. This increase in iron leads to a short-term sensitivity to oxidative damage. Manganese and calcium are also accumulated in lag phase, but are lost from the cell during exponential growth.

This new understanding of Salmonella metabolism during lag phase show how rapidly Salmonella senses favourable conditions and builds up the materials needed for growth.

The researchers say future research to work out the regulatory mechanisms behind these processes and the switch from lag phase to exponential growth will tell them more about how Salmonella can flourish in different environments, and could point to new ways of controlling its transmission in the food chain.