American Academy of Microbiology Honors Two New UMD Researchers as Fellows, with Only Seven Total Named in College Park over the Past 50 Years

New Fellows highlight commitment to food safety and infectious disease microbiology as major public health concerns

Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

February 19, 2019 Samantha Watters

The American Academy of Microbiology, the honorific leadership group within the American Society for Microbiology, recognizes excellence, originality, and leadership in the microbiological sciences. Academy Fellows are eminent leaders in the field of microbiology and are relied upon for authoritative advice and insight on critical issues in microbiology. This year, the Academy elected two new senior scientists from the University of Maryland College Park campus, now part of a select group of only seven fellows named over the past 50 years. Both new electees are from the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, Jianghong Meng of Nutrition & Food Science and Utpal Pal of Veterinary Medicine. Tackling major public health concerns like foodborne illness and tick-borne infectious diseases like Lyme disease, Meng and Pal are leading the way in food safety and infectious disease microbiology.

“It’s a great honor, and we are very pleased that the Academy appreciates the work that we do in food safety,” says Meng. “This is a huge recognition of food safety as an important area of microbiology.” Pal adds, “This is truly a global honor, with scientists from all over the world considered, and so few from our university being honored in the past. It shows our college’s great contributions to microbiology, and specifically animal and human health in Veterinary Medicine.”

Food Safety Microbiology

Meng has made significant strides in the field of food safety microbiology, including innovative research in developing rapid molecular methods for detecting foodborne pathogens. In his lab, he is using advanced technology to answer questions related to the sources of foodborne pathogens and risk factors that contribute to foodborne illness. He works on the Food and Drug Administration’s GenomeTrakr project, which is the first network of laboratories to use the process of whole genome sequencing to rapidly identify foodborne pathogens. This information can in turn be accessed by researchers and public health officials for real-time analysis to significantly improve foodborne illness outbreak investigations and prevent further illness and death.

“We generate whole genome sequencing data and share that information with the public to provide timely information on foodborne pathogens that can be used to detect and trace outbreaks and identify the sources of foodborne illness like Salmonella and E.coli,” says Meng. “GenomeTrakr has gained a lot of recognition and made a big impact nationally and internationally. We are trying to enrich the database to really make the technology as useful as possible, and my lab is contributing to that process.”

Meng is a professor of Nutrition & Food Science, but also the Director of the Joint Institute for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN) and the Center for Food Safety & Security Systems (CFS3). Meng’s work at JIFSAN and CFS3 supports the Food and Drug Administration and the Food Safety Modernization Act, emphasizing the prevention of food safety-related problems before they occur. Through JIFSAN and CFS3, Meng and his teams have trained over 10,000 food safety professionals worldwide in over 50 countries.

“JIFSAN and CFS3 are leaders in global food safety capacity building,” says Meng. “Because of this, the college has made a major impact in improving global food safety, and contributing to microbiology to identify and detect pathogens and prevent foodborne illness.”

Infectious Disease Microbiology

Pal, professor of Veterinary Medicine, says, “In our college, one of the major initiatives is to improve health. We are in a college where we study animals, plants, the environment, and humans in relation to health. Zoonotic diseases fit perfectly because these are the diseases that come from animals to humans. In my lab, we are studying the basic microbiology of these diseases to understand this better so we can come up with better prevention and treatment.”

Pal is extensively published in the field of infectious diseases, primarily focusing on microbiology as a means for prevention of tick-borne illnesses. His lab has contributed to new paradigms particularly in the study of an atypical bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. This pathogen is transmitted by black-legged ticks and results in Lyme disease in both animals and humans.

“The basic biology of the Borrelia bacteria is very unique,” explains Pal. “The shape, strategies, and mechanisms of other vector-borne illness from mosquitos are completely different from those in ticks. And with ticks, you have added levels of complexity because the pathogen is actually travelling from mammal to tick and then to humans. It is a complicated zoonosis, and a unique infection pathway and microbe. We had to devise new tools and techniques to study this bacteria because the classical concept of microbiology doesn’t apply to Borrelia. We have pioneered not only the concepts of how to study this pathogen, but also the tools that we recently put together in one of only two books that exists on this topic and is now essential for the study of tick-borne pathogens.” The book has 75 contributing authors worldwide, with Pal as senior editor. Pal has contributed to the genetics of this pathogen as well, one of only a small number of pathogens capable of establishing persistent, long-term infection.

Pal is currently leading the Tick Immunity project, representing the first-ever multi-project grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health to establish a collaborative national research program in tick immunobiology.

Pal adds, “The college is playing a great role in training the next generation of scientists in microbiology. I have personally trained 11 doctoral students, 23 post-doctoral students, 7 junior faculty, and countless undergraduate students in various areas of microbiology and infectious diseases. This honor provides an opportunity to be a lead microbiologist as an Academy member, and to participate in shaping the future of microbiology.”

Both Pal and Meng look forward to the new and ongoing ways they can enhance the future of their fields as part of the Academy.