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Front Microbiol

Colonization of plants by human pathogenic bacteria in the course of organic vegetable production

Andreas Hofmann, Doreen Fischer, Anton Hartmann, and Michael Schmid

Department of Environmental Sciences, Research Unit Microbe-Plant Interactions, Helmholtz Zentrum München, German Research Center for Environmental Health (GmbH), Neuherberg, Germany.


In recent years, increasing numbers of outbreaks caused by the consumption of vegetables contaminated with human pathogenic bacteria were reported. The application of organic fertilizers during vegetable production is one of the possible reasons for contamination with those pathogens. In this study laboratory experiments in axenic and soil systems following common practices in organic farming were conducted to identify the minimal dose needed for bacterial colonization of plants and to identify possible factors like bacterial species or serovariation, plant species or organic fertilizer types used, influencing the success of plant colonization by human pathogenic bacteria. Spinach and corn salad were chosen as model plants and were inoculated with different concentrations of Salmonella enterica sv. Weltevreden, Listeria monocytogenes sv. 4b and EGD-E sv. 1/2a either directly (axenic system) or via agricultural soil amended with spiked organic fertilizers (soil system). In addition to PCR- and culture-based detection methods, fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) was applied in order to localize bacteria on or in plant tissues. Our results demonstrate that shoots were colonized by the pathogenic bacteria at inoculation doses as low as 4 × 10 CFU/ml in the axenic system or 4 × 105 CFU/g in the soil system. In addition, plant species dependent effects were observed. Spinach was colonized more often and at lower inoculation doses compared to corn salad. Differential colonization sites on roots, depending on the plant species could be detected using FISH-CLSM analysis. Furthermore, the transfer of pathogenic bacteria to plants via organic fertilizers was observed more often and at lower initial inoculation doses when fertilization was performed with inoculated slurry compared to inoculated manure. Finally, it could be shown that by introducing a simple washing step, the bacterial contamination was reduced in most cases or even was removed completely in some cases.

Keywords: organic food, vegetable, organic fertilizer, Salmonella enterica, Listeria monocytogenes.

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