Battle of the Bacteria

The bacteria that gives feta cheese its delicious flavor could also be the key to preventing food poisoning


Could this tasty cheese hold the key to fighting food poisoning?Dominik Hundhammer

In a surprising twist of nature, a particular strain of bacteria could hold the key to keeping perishables free from food poisoning. Isolated from lactic acid in raw Macedonian sheep's milk, these particular enterococci bacteria produce a handful of compounds deadly to related bacterial strains, such as listeria, which happens to be quite bad for humans and a frequent source of food poisoning. The compounds, called bacteriocins, work like a narrow spectrum antibiotic to keep listeria at bay.

Enterococci are a diverse family of bacteria. Some are notorious in hospitals as being especially virulent and resistant to antibiotics; others—like the ones in sheep's milk—are what give feta cheese its distinctive flavor. The researchers studying the milk bacteria hope to be able to produce the bacteriocins in such a way that they could become replacements for additives and synthetic preservatives in foods. Ultimately, if they could be cultivated as non-pathogenic, they would colonize in our bodies along with the other beneficial bacteria there to stand guard against foodborne pathogens.