It is testament to the notoriety of toxin producing E. coli that it’s the only bacteria that commands an international conference every three years at spots around the world. That’s what happened recently in Buenos Aires when the world’s leading researchers, medical doctors, and epidemiologists with an interest in toxigenic E. coli gathered to share information and brainstorm about the rogue members of the E. coli family that remain a significant public health problem across much of the globe. Buenos Aires was a apt place for the conference as Argentina, perhaps due to all those cattle the gauchos herd around, has one of the highest rates of the hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) caused by the very bacteria the scientists spend their lives trying to understand.

It is almost impossible to describe the breadth of the topics discussed at the conference. It ranged from the incidence of E. coli infections in particular countries, the severity and manifestations of the infections E. coli causes, the genes within the bacteria responsible for the injury causing qualities of the bacteria, the evolutionary course of the various E. coli bacteria than now infect humans, the reservoirs for the bacteria and how to reduce E. coli shedding in cattle. Of course, a lot of the presentations are hard science way beyond what the average curious consumer might grasp, but what impresses is how many different areas of research and interest are tied to this one type of bacteria. In turn, the research on toxin producing E. coli has produced results that have value across the scientific spectrum, even as everyone involved cites the terrible consequences of toxigenic E. coli infections in humans, especially children, as a source of motivation.

One of the many invigorating aspects of this conference is the realization of how a far flung network of scientists have worked to create a culture of mutual interest, sharing, and building on one another’s work. The results are impressive, even though toxin producing E. coli remains a major public health enemy. It is also a reminder of how important the current administration’s support for basic science will be in advancing the ball on public health issues, including foodborne pathogens. 

And it turns out that this brainy group of public service oriented professionals also knows how to have fun as evidenced by the dance floor action at Tango night, one of the diversions the conference offered to attendees. As for Buenos Aires itself, it’s a wondrous mix of the new world and old, humming with energy, music, good wine, and yes, good beef.

Bruce Clark and Patti Waller