The most recent outbreak of foodborne illness in Germany, which so far has infected more than 4,000 people and killed 36, serves as a reminder of the power microbes hold over humanity, in spite of scientific, medical, and technological advances.

At the University of Arizona (UA), several research teams in various disciplines are working toward improving food safety and developing new and effective weapons against an emerging breed of microbes that's becoming increasingly resistant to conventional antibiotics.

"Foodborne pathogens have been emerging for some time, and we can expect this to increase as the global produce market grows. Produce comes from all over the world these days," said Charles Gerba, a world-renowned expert on microbial hygiene who is a professor in the UA's Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Science at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Gerba cautioned that an unusually serious outbreak of foodborne bacteria like the one in Germany could very well happen in the U.S., adding that with greater centralization of produce in certain locations at particular times of the year and a lack of requirements for source tracking, the risks increase.

"Microbes evolve very rapidly, and it is going to be a continuing battle to keep up with them as food production practices change," Gerba said.

After weeks of investigations, testing of food samples and interviewing patients who had contracted a highly aggressive strain of Escherichia coli bacteria, dubbed O104:H4, the German health authorities were finally able to confirm sprouts as at least as one of the sources of the outbreak.

E. coli inhabit the guts of most animals, including humans, and most strains don't cause disease, and some even are beneficial. O104:H4, however, startled health professionals with its unprecedented virulence, sending infected people to the hospitals in droves.

About 600 developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, which includes life-threatening kidney failure and, in some cases, damage to the brain. O104:H4 is classified as an EHEC – short for entero-hemorrhagic, which translates to bloody diarrhea.