Dr. Lee-Ann Jaykus

Nullifying Norovirus

Remember your last case of food poisoning? Odds are it was caused by a nasty pathogen called a norovirus. But if food scientist Dr. Lee-Ann Jaykus has her way, noroviruses won’t be on the menu much longer.

Jaykus is leading a team of researchers—backed by a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture—to find out what makes noroviruses tick and how to control them. The grant is the largest ever given by the USDA for food-safety research.

Human noroviruses are the most common cause of foodborne disease, causing more than five million cases in the United States each year. Noroviruses spread from person to person, through contaminated food or water and on contaminated surfaces touched by humans. Molluscan shellfish such as oysters, clams and mussels, fresh produce and foods that are extensively handled just prior to consumption are at greatest risk for contamination.

The viruses are difficult to study because they cannot be cultivated outside of the human body, few commercial diagnostic tests are available in the United States and only a few scientists are trained specifically in food virology, Jaykus explains.

“We anticipate this project will result in enhanced understanding, surveillance and control of foodborne human noroviruses, with the ultimate goal of reducing the burden of foodborne disease,” she says.

Her team, called the USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture Food Virology Collaborative, consists of more than 30 collaborators from academia, industry and government.