Recent foodborne outbreaks have linked infection by enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) serotype O157:H7 to the consumption of contaminated lettuce. Contamination via food handler error and on-the-farm contamination are thought to be responsible for several outbreaks. Though recent studies have examined the application of EHEC to store-bought lettuce, little is known about the attachment of EHEC to growing plants. We investigated the association of lettuce seedlings with EHEC O157:H7 strains implicated in lettuce or fruit outbreaks using hydroponic and soil model systems. EHEC strains that express the green fluorescent protein were observed by stereomicroscopy and confocal laser scanning microscopy to determine adherence patterns on growing lettuce seedlings. Bacteria adhered preferentially to plant roots in both model systems and to seed coats in the hydroponic system. Two of five nonpathogenic E. coli strains showed decreased adherence to seedling roots in the hydroponic system. EHEC was associated with plants in as few as 3 days in soil, and contamination levels were dose-dependent. EHEC levels associated with young plants inoculated with a low dose suggested that the bacteria had multiplied. These data suggest that preharvest crop contamination via contaminated irrigation water can occur through plant roots.

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