From Veterinary Medicine to Food Safety Technology: Honing Tools to Detect Foodborne Pathogens
By Meeri Kim
Growing up in Ethiopia, Woubit Abebe (formerly Abdela) had always been a star student and, as a result, found herself with several possible career paths. She had only one requirement for her future job: She would apply her knowledge to help others in whatever way she could.
“Whatever I do, I do it to the best of my ability. In a way, I could have done anything,” says Abebe, professor in the Department of Pathobiology at Tuskegee University in Alabama. “I could have been — I don't know, I would have loved to be an astronaut. I would have loved to be a medical doctor.”
In the end, Abebe chose veterinary medicine, and she’s leveraged it into a career of helping combat the spread of some of the world’s deadliest foodborne pathogens.
She currently serves as director of Tuskegee University’s Center for Food Animal Health, Food Safety, and Food Defense (CFAFSD), which conducts cutting-edge research in farm animal health, epidemic diseases of livestock that threaten global food security including diseases which spread from animals to humans (zoonoses), and pre-/post-harvest food safety. The center closely collaborates with state-level departments to develop opportunities for the advancement of agricultural food safety in Alabama.
Her research focuses on creating rapid pathogen detection tools that employ real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR), the same technique used for COVID-19 testing. In 2014, she developed and patented a detection platform array that simultaneously identifies 12 different high-priority pathogens — from Escherichia coli and Salmonella enterica to Yersinia pestis and Yersinia pseudotuberculosis — in samples of food items including meat, milk and vegetables.
Since then, Abebe has been working on expanding the testing capacity for additional biological threats. Recently, her laboratory designed an assay for the rapid and accurate detection of over 23 Salmonella serovars of particular interest to public health, which may be carried in food or water supplies.
“Obviously, nobody wants to eat contaminated food or have a sickness — and globally foodborne illness costs billions of dollars in terms of hospitalizations and other expenses,” she says. “My overarching goal literally is to detect all pathogens in one assay, if I can.”
Abebe also serves as co-principal investigator for an ongoing project funded by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety, titled “Food safety capacity building in Senegal: Enhancing resilience of the dairy value chain by leveraging public-private partnerships.” Dairy production in Senegal is a rapidly growing sector, but it relies on a diverse and fragmented supply chain of individual small farms, aggregation centers, artisanal processing facilities, and transport without refrigeration, creating a challenging situation for food safety.
The project aims to improve food safety across the dairy value chain through multiple approaches, including raising awareness of food safety issues and their impact on public health, conducting research-based food safety training programs, and identifying practical food safety interventions. It will also integrate gender research and training strategies to support women dairy operators, who play important roles in milk and dairy production and sales. Mentoring students in Senegal is one of Abebe’s roles in the project.
“I have mentored a master's student in Senegal who drafted a literature review of dairy pathogens in Senegal, and I’m currently working with students on conducting surveys on hygienic practices in Senegalese milk and dairy chain to identify risks associated with existing production systems and milk-borne illnesses. Sebsequently, we will have students working in the lab to identify the presence of major pathogens,” Abebe says. “Of course, Senegal is a different story than the U.S. They face very important challenges: Pathogens that are not really an issue here are still an issue over there.”
One of her goals within the project is to prepare the laboratory at Senegal’s Institut de Technologie Alimentaire (ITA) to analyze milk samples for pathogens like Brucella, Salmonella, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis. This project will potentially use the two patented detection platforms developed by Dr. Abebe's laboratory. The project, currently in its third year, is led by Manpreet Singh of the University of Georgia with collaborators at three Senegalese institutions: ITA, Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles, and Conseil National du Développement de la Nutrition.
Abebe’s career path started with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree from Addis Ababa University in 2000. She then left her home country on a full scholarship to complete her master’s and Ph.D. at the Institut National Polytechnique De Toulouse in France. Abebe then secured a faculty position in the Department of Pathobiology at Tuskeegee University, where she has used genome sequence analysis of pathogens to identify target regions to use in diagnostic tools. In addition to pathogen detection tools, her research spans novel vaccine development, testing of biodegradable packaging materials to limit food contamination in stores, as well as livestock and environmental assessments to determine the sources of major foodborne pathogens to curtail preharvest food contamination.
“One of the things we're trying to do is study these pathogens within the farm level. If we can identify an animal husbandry system associated with less shedding of bacteria, we can work on preventing contamination right on the field level,” says Abebe. “So if we can reduce that burden, I think that will play an important role in the assurance of the safety of food.”
Meeri Kim is a freelance writer with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety.