Written by Liz Pacheco, Environmental Science and Policy Program
When a rare strain of E. coli infections spread in Germany this past summer, the outbreak was the worst in history. Even scarier, such outbreaks of foodborne illnesses are increasingly frequent. Spinach, sprouts, tomatoes, peanut butter, eggs, cantaloupes: The list of contaminated foods is long and only continues to grow. So while efforts are being made to control these foodborne infections after outbreaks, MSU's Shannon Manning (Microbiology and Molecular Genetics) is working to find out where the bacteria are actually coming from and how they are causing disease.
"I'm trying to better understand the evolution of potentially pathogenic bacteria and how different types of bacteria are able to survive in various environments," she explains. Manning specifically works with the subset of E. coli strains that produce Shiga toxin—a common cause of serious foodborne illness outbreaks. "Everyone is worried about controlling Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, but more effort is required to better understand the natural history of the bacterium in the environment and [animals]."
Manning started working with E. coli in 1993 as a research assistant at the University of Michigan. In 1998, Manning received a master's in public health and followed that with a Ph.D. in epidemiologic science, both at Michigan.
Although a longtime Wolverine, Manning has been a Sparty fan since 2004 when she joined MSU as a research assistant professor at the invitation from the late Tom Whittam. Her research then was part of a National Institute of Health grant to work on the surveillance and molecular characterization of E. coli and other bacterial pathogens in Michigan.
While Manning still works on a follow-up to that grant, with the Michigan Department of Community Health, her research has taken a new focus that involves identifying and characterizing bacterial pathogens in the environment before they cause disease in humans. Connections have been made between livestock feces—particularly cattle's—and the spread of these pathogens into food. So, as part of her research, Manning asks, "Can we identify factors that are important for fecal contamination to try to prevent the organism from getting in the food supply?"
This question can involve a variety of stakeholders and Manning sees joining ESPP as a great way to start connecting with those outside her field. "I want to have access to people who are interested in the research questions I'm asking," she says, "particularly to students and collaborating faculty. I want to let them know I'm here in the hopes that we can work together to guide future policy decisions involving bacterial pathogens that are commonly found in the environment."