The grant of £113,000 from the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) will help the centre develop tools to understand Campylobacter coli at the molecular and genetic level.
The aim is to sequence 500 genomes from Campylobacter coli strains, which will be collected from animals, foods, humans and different environments.
Campylobacter illness is caused by at least 20 different species, the vast majority of infections are down to Campylobacter jejuni but estimated 10% of cases are caused by C. coli.
Campylobacter is a leading cause of UK food poisoning, causing at least 500,000 infections per year and the FSA recently conceded that no progress was being made in reducing levels.
Much less is known about the biology of C.coli – including where it resides in the environment and how it infects people.
A consortium led by Dr Arnoud van Vliet of the Institute of Food Research will work on the two year study which started in July.
"We can’t just extrapolate the data as Campylobacter coli risk factors are different than those of Campylobacter jejuni,” he told FoodQualityNews.com.
“We have some theories about [Campylobacter Coli] but we have no direct hypothesis, no preconceived ideas about what we should find, so we will look and see what is there through genome sequencing all the data.”
The first set of genomes are hoped to be sequenced within two months and the aim is to have 100 by April 2014.
Harmful or not?
He said sources of the pathogen may include game, tripe, environmental and water.
“We need quick ways of saying whether the strain of Campylobacter Coli is dangerous or not, are they all bad or is it just some, so we don’t have to worry about the ones that don’t cause disease.
“With Campylobacter jejuni we know some sources because it of surveys of people who got ill, but we will have the full spread and not just the ones that cause disease.”
When these genomes are analysed and compared, it should be possible to pick out genetic markers that identify strains from particular environmental niches, and possibly even predict why these strains prefer a particular environment.
These markers and other information from the genome of C. coli will be help researchers studying these bacteria to answer questions about what the main sources of infection are.
“If we know what makes the difference between a so-called good and bad Campylobacter coli we can distinguish between them and feed the research into better risk assessment,” said van Vliet.
“The information will be for the public domain, not just kept in labs, it will be used for the purpose of understanding the bacteria and enable us to distinguish between the isolates.”
Some research suggests that game, tripe and recreational swimming may be significant sources of infection – a major difference to Campylobacter jejuni.
The study results could be used to develop diagnostic tools to help confirm, diagnose and track sources of C. coli contamination, added van Vliet.
The work will be done in collaboration with The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) and the University of East Anglia, partners with IFR on the Norwich Research Park, and scientists at the Universities of Swansea and Liverpool and Public Health England.