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Growth Dynamics Of Salmonella Enterica Strains On Alfalfa Sprouts And In Waste Seed Irrigation Water

Michael B. Howard, Steven W. Hutcheson

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ABSTRACT Alfalfa sprouts and other seed sprouts have been implicated in numerous outbreaks of salmonellosis. The source of these epidemics appears to have been low-level contamination of seeds by Salmonella bacteria that developed into clinically significant populations during the seed germination process. To test the possibility that Salmonella enterica strains carry host range determinants that allow them to grow on alfalfa, strains isolated from alfalfa or other sources were surveyed for their ability to grow on germinating alfalfa seeds. An S. enterica serovar Cubana strain originally isolated from contaminated alfalfa sprouts multiplied most rapidly during the initial 24 h of the seed germination process. Germinating alfalfa seeds supported the multiplication of S. enterica cells prior to the emergence of the root radicle at 72 h. Thereafter, much lower rates of multiplication were apparent. The ability of S. enterica to grow on germinating alfalfa seeds was independent of the serovar, isolation source, or virulence of the strain. Isolates obtained from alfalfa attained population levels similar to those observed for strains isolated from contaminated meat products or stools. Each of the strains could be detected in the waste irrigation water, with populations being strongly correlated with those detected on the germinating alfalfa seeds. The S. enterica strains were capable of utilizing the waste irrigation water as a sole carbon and nitrogen source. S. enterica strains thus appear to grow saprophytically on soluble organics released from seeds during early phases of germination. The ability to detect S. enterica in the waste irrigation water early in the germination process indicates that this method may be used as a simple way to monitor the contamination of sprouts during commercial operations.