The effects of climate change are not limited to heat waves and rising sea levels. The consequences of climate change are felt even on a microscopic level. Escherichia coli (better known as E. coli) a bacteria that is responsible for severe food-poisoning, seems resistant to rising temperature. PhD researcher Styliani Roufou from the University of Malta studies how E. coli’s resistance to increased temperature could have on the dairy sector.
Surprisingly, E. coli is actually essential for our health. It forms part of a gut’s healthy microflora, providing us with Vitamin K2 which helps our blood to clot. Unfortunately, other strains of E. coli can cause serious food poisoning when ingested and symptoms range from mild diarrhoea to death. For the dairy industry, keeping this bacteria away from diary products is crucial.
Since the 1860s, pasteurisation has helped to curb E. coli. Raw milk is quickly heated (typically to 71.7oC) for just long enough (15 seconds) to destroy any harmful microorganisms. Drinking milk straight from the udder or eating raw-milk cheeses therefore carries greater risk. High-temperature treatments act as a screen between our bodies and the farm. Unfortunately climate change may render that screen ineffective.
Roufou is testing E. coli’s ability to adapt to new and extreme environments. While many organisms (including humans) suffer from the increased temperatures of climate change, it doesn’t seem to be the case for E. coli. In fact, some strains seem to be thriving. The danger is that they have the potential to adapt to withstand the pasteurisation process.
Working alongside her research supervisors Prof. Vasilis Valdramidis and Dr Sholeem Griffin (Faculty of Health Sciences, Department of Food Sciences and Nutrition University of Malta), Roufou is part of Protect ITN, an EU Marie Sklodowska-Curie initiative to predict and prepare for food challenges caused by the climate crisis. Eight early stage researchers and their universities across Europe are leading projects to safeguard our future food safety, with participation from dairy giants like Nestlé.
For a more detailed look at Styliani Roufou’s research, you can read the full article on Issue 36 of THINK Magazine, or access it online. This edition focuses on Destruction and tackles topics ranging from death to war to environmental devastation.