Finding Cyclospora DNA in a sample means simply that — the DNA is present, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s viable or infectious.
“The more information, the better,” she said. “We’re using one of these tests to find the positive samples and then the other test to confirm and to add more information. That way we get a better idea of what’s going on.
“There are other pathogens that are very closely related to Cyclospora cayetanensis. That’s why we’re very careful just to make sure if we call it Cyclospora, it has to be Cyclospora.”
During her two-year project, Ortega will visit cooperating California and Florida produce operations monthly to collect water samples to test for C. cayetanensis. She also will collect produce samples from Florida to test for the pathogen.
Ortega credited industry partners with educating her about typical farming practices, which include irrigation and water sources, so her results will be applicable.
“I think the industry has been very helpful in giving us some critical ideas and their concerns,” she said. “We’ve been very, very thankful and very lucky to find collaborators who are so engaged in this. They come with me and are learning how to do this sampling.”
Previous epidemiological studies have found that Cyclospora is seasonal, with the peak period in the United States from June through August when most cases of Cyclospora are observed. Similar peaks are seen in Mexico and Guatemala as well as a number of other countries.
“It shows up at certain times of the year, and the cycle repeats every single year,” she said.
Should her research show the presence of Cyclospora oocysts in the surface waters in Florida and/or California, she said it could help the industry identify potentially high-risk months and when to increase their sampling.
Ultimately, Ortega hopes her research leads to simple, rapid water sampling and testing methods for the produce industry to use for Cyclospora.
“You can have something that’s really good, but if it’s so unpractical to do, it won’t get done,” she said. “We’re trying to make this user-friendly because we want people to use it.”