Citizen scientists, boot socks help researchers study disease vectors

Half the volunteers in the study conducted walks in England's North West, a region where livestock farming is common. The other participants took walks in East Anglia, where cropland dominates. File Photo by Moments by Mullineux/Shutterstock

June 6 (UPI) — Citizen scientists in England are helping researchers at the University of Liverpool track the abundance of infectious disease bacteria in different parts of England.

The ongoing research promises to help scientists better understand when and where infectious disease is most likely to make the jump from animals to humans.

Most recently, researchers were able to show Campylobacter bacteria, the microbial genus most often responsible for bacterial foodborne disease, is most prevalent in the winter and spring in places with large livestock populations.

The analysis was made possible by a group of citizen scientists recruited to participate in an ongoing collaborative research project called ENIGMA. The volunteers regularly slipped a sterile boot sock on one of their feet before 2.5-mile walk. Participants took one walk every three weeks for 16 months.

Half the volunteers conducted walks in England’s North West, a region where livestock farming is common. The other participants took walks in East Anglia, where cropland dominates.

After each walk, the citizen scientists put on gloves to peel off their boot and mail it to scientists at Liverpool. Researchers found the boot socks from the North West featured Campylobacter bacteria 55.8 percent of the time, while socks from East Anglia hosted the infectious microbes just 38.6 percent of the time.

Scientists measured a peak in bacterial abundance in the winter and again in the spring. Researchers also found a correlation between precipitation and higher bacterial concentrations. Heat was associated with lower rates of Campylobacter contamination.

Researchers published their findings in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

“The transmission pathways for 50 percent of human cases of Campylobacter are unknown. Around 40 percent of cases occur during the ‘spring spark,'” researcher Sarah O’Brien said in a news release. “Yet the relative roles of environmental and food pathways, and their interaction, in this seasonal emergence are poorly understood, if at all.

“Generally, food is often a source of Campylobacter in humans, but food alone cannot explain all the cases occurring in the population,” O’Brien said. “This study has helped us examine other potential causes of how the disease is contracted. Ultimately, this research could lead to interventions to reduce the disease risk to humans.”


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