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Hungry for more stories on science, culture and technology?Check out Brain Food: Insights and Discoveries from Northern Arizona. From ground breaking scientific research to global music projects, Brain Food profiles some of the unique projects happening in the region and the interesting people behind them. While there are no new episodes of Brain Food, we will continue to maintain the archive here.

Brain Food: Flagstaff Becomes Test Site To Track E. coli

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Baliga Diagnostics
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E. coli is commonly thought of as a gut bug, but many times it presents itself in the urinary tract. Now, researchers in Flagstaff are studying how the germ gets there.

Paul Keim is a disease expert at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Flagstaff. He says nationwide, there are about 6 to 8 million urinary tract infections a year. Keim says, "the vast, vast majority of those are caused by E. coli. Here in Flagstaff, the clinicians see somewhere between 1 and 2,000 cases of E. coli infection in urinary tracts every year.

Keim is studying where the disease comes from: does it come from other people? Do we carry it ourselves? Or, does it come from the food we eat? Flagstaff has only a few grocery stores and just one hospital, so that makes it an ideal test site because it's a small community.

Keim says the study began by monitoring the people who had urinary tract infections in Flagstaff. "At the same time," he says, "we compared those E. coli to the E. coli that we're isolating from the food supply. So, every 2 weeks we bought meat at all the grocery stores in town, isolated E. coli from the meat - yes, it's true...there is E. coli in the meat you eat - and then we compared these using high-resolution genome analysis." Keim goes on to say that between 10 and 15% of the E. coli samples found in patients were also found in the food. "So, this very close identity," he says, "tells us that there's a linkage between the food and those particular cases."

Keim's samples are being stored in a Flagstaff "biobank" for use in longer-term studies. He hopes his research will result in a better understanding of how E. coli is spread and how people can protect themselves.