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Human Pathogens on Plants: Designing a Multidisciplinary Strategy for Research

April 2013 , Volume 103 , Number  4
Pages  306 - 315

Jacqueline Fletcher, Jan E. Leach, Kellye Eversole, and Robert Tauxe

First author: National Institute for Microbial Forensics & Food and Agricultural Biosecurity, Department of Entomology & Plant Pathology, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK; second author: Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management, Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, CO; third author: Eversole Associates, Bethesda, MD; and fourth author: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Atlanta, GA.

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Accepted for publication 29 January 2013.

Recent efforts to address concerns about microbial contamination of food plants and resulting foodborne illness have prompted new collaboration and interactions between the scientific communities of plant pathology and food safety. This article provides perspectives from scientists of both disciplines and presents selected research results and concepts that highlight existing and possible future synergisms for audiences of both disciplines. Plant pathology is a complex discipline that encompasses studies of the dissemination, colonization, and infection of plants by microbes such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and oomycetes. Plant pathologists study plant diseases as well as host plant defense responses and disease management strategies with the goal of minimizing disease occurrences and impacts. Repeated outbreaks of human illness attributed to the contamination of fresh produce, nuts and seeds, and other plant-derived foods by human enteric pathogens such as Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli and Salmonella spp. have led some plant pathologists to broaden the application of their science in the past two decades, to address problems of human pathogens on plants (HPOPs). Food microbiology, which began with the study of microbes that spoil foods and those that are critical to produce food, now also focuses study on how foods become contaminated with pathogens and how this can be controlled or prevented. Thus, at the same time, public health researchers and food microbiologists have become more concerned about plant–microbe interactions before and after harvest. New collaborations are forming between members of the plant pathology and food safety communities, leading to enhanced research capacity and greater understanding of the issues for which research is needed. The two communities use somewhat different vocabularies and conceptual models. For example, traditional plant pathology concepts such as the disease triangle and the disease cycle can help to define cross-over issues that pertain also to HPOP research, and can suggest logical strategies for minimizing the risk of microbial contamination. Continued interactions and communication among these two disciplinary communities is essential and can be achieved by the creation of an interdisciplinary research coordination network. We hope that this article, an introduction to the multidisciplinary HPOP arena, will be useful to researchers in many related fields.

© 2013 The American Phytopathological Society