A Healthy Solution

Jean Lu

Jean Lu has found an area of research that epitomizes problem-solving skills for her students: the…

Georgia (Nov 18, 2014)

Jean Lu has found an area of research that epitomizes problem-solving skills for her students: the factors influencing foodborne pathogens and the methods used to control them.

Lu, an associate professor in the Department of Biology and Physics, is examining the potential positive effects of the plant wasabi on fighting off certain bacteria.

“As a professor it’s my job to inspire curiosity, and it’s very satisfying to watch my students learn and apply their skills toward solving problems,” she said. “I’m interested in research that can improve the lives of others.”

Most would argue that America’s food supply is among the safest in the world, but has its share of challenges. “While food safety remains a top priority for the food industry, growers and consumers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates around 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses occur annually,” said Lu. “Children, pregnant woman, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are the most vulnerable to most foodborne illnesses, but food poisoning is certainly not exclusive to them.”

Ready-to-eat foods (food prepared in advance and eaten as sold) are frequently implicated in foodborne illness cases. Control of foodborne pathogens at the point of consumption is important to safeguard people from food poisoning.

Lu and her team studied the antibacterial effect of wasabi against Escherichia coli 0157:H7 (E. coli 0157:H7) and Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) – two of the major bacterial pathogens frequently involved in these food outbreaks. Wasabi is indigenous to Japan and is generally sold as a root that is grated before use, as dried powder, or as a ready-to-eat paste.

“We studied wasabi because it is an edible plant and an excellent choice for those who do not wish to add chemical or artificial preservatives to their meals,” said Lu. “Wasabi has many health benefits, such as supporting the immune system, detoxifying the liver, and providing strong antioxidant and anticancer effects.”

Staphylococcal food poisoning is a common gastrointestinal illness caused by eating foods contaminated with toxins produced by S. aureus. The most common way for food to be contaminated is through contact with food workers or other people who carry the bacteria. Symptoms from exposure to this bacterial pathogen usually develop quickly after eating contaminated food and can include nausea, vomiting, cramps and diarrhea. It takes patients between one and three days to recover.

E. coli 0157:H7 is an emerging cause of food poisoning with an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 reported cases each year in the U.S., according to the CDC. This strain produces a powerful toxin and can cause severe diarrhea, kidney failure and abdominal cramps. It takes victims between five to ten days to recover from it. Eating meat that has not been cooked sufficiently to kill E. coli O157:H7 can cause infection.

“Our research found that wasabi at 0.5 percent or higher concentration effectively controlled these two major foodborne pathogens and can be used in ‘ready-to-eat’ foods at the point of consumption,” said Lu. “This is promising news, which may be of significant interest to the food industry as they develop new and safe foods.”

The team’s preliminary study also showed that wasabi is inhibitory to other two bacterial pathogens – Salmonella typhimurium and Listeria monocytogens. With more research, it’s possible that wasabi may have a broad spectrum against other major foodborne pathogens as well.

“Despite its benefits, not everyone enjoys the taste of wasabi,” said Lu. “The pungent taste of wasabi is a turnoff for some people, but if you can bear it, it’s well worth the antibacterial effects. The Japanese have been pairing it with sushi for years and perhaps they are on to something we need to examine more closely. The antimicrobial activity of wasabi against foodborne pathogens has not been well studied.”

The wasabi research was carried out in Dr. Lu’s research lab at Kennesaw State University and was funded by the department of biology and physics. The team consisted of Lu; Christopher R. Dockery, an associate professor and assistant chair, forensic and analytical chemistry; and students Michael Crosby, Brett Patterson and Matthew Giedd.


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu