Dr Matthew Gilmour is group leader at Quadram Institute at Norwich Research Park. Find out how his expertise with a foodborne contaminant called Listeria is preventing outbreaks in the UK – and how this can be adapted for the Covid-19 response.

Eastern Daily Press: Matthew has cycled 2,000 miles of Norfolk countryside since he moved to the UK from Canada in AugustMatthew has cycled 2,000 miles of Norfolk countryside since he moved to the UK from Canada in August (Image: Matthew Gilmour)

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

What does your role entail?

I lead a research group as part of the Microbes in the Food Chain programme at Quadram Institute focusing on a foodborne contaminant called Listeria. Our goal is to understand the threat of Listeria outbreaks and create problem-solving tools to enable food producers and government agencies such as Public Health England and the Food Standards Agency to detect and eliminate these organisms within the food production chain.

What is Listeria?

Listeria is a dangerous, invasive pathogen (a microorganism, such as bacteria, that can cause disease) commonly found in water, plants and animals that can contaminate food products such as cooked meats, shellfish, cheese, fruit and vegetables. If Listeria is introduced during food production and distributed to vulnerable people, the consequences can be severe. About 30pc of listeria cases are fatal.

Those with compromised immune systems, the elderly and pregnant women, are particularly vulnerable to invasive infections resulting from Listeria, including septicaemia and meningitis. Listeria can transmit from the gut into the bloodstream and to the foetus during pregnancy, which often results in abortions or stillbirths. This is why pregnant women are advised to avoid certain foods like smoked fish that can carry Listeria.

Listeria can grow at refrigeration temperatures, so the best way to reduce the risk is to observe use-by dates and ensure food is cooked properly. It can be a significant challenge for food producers to rid their environment of Listeria because it can become resistant to sanitisers.

How is your research conducted?

We use genome sequencing to create a detailed blueprint of the organism to establish where it has come from and how it causes disease. This process enables us to respond quickly and effectively to emerging threats like the 2009 Listeria outbreak in Canada. I was honoured to receive the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal as a leader at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory for this work.

In fact, the technology used to identify Covid-19 variants was originally developed for foodborne bacterial pathogens like Listeria. The Covid response has validated the use of investigative genomics, as it demonstrated the importance of determining different variants to get a better understanding of where viruses emerge and how they circulate within communities.

What is the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?

The way that science is approached at Norwich Research Park is exactly how I like to do it. We have the best equipment available: state-of-the-art sequencing technologies, high-performance computing and microscopy. With our teams of experts, we are here to do good science and we are here to do it together.

Not only have we got the experts and the tools, but we've also got the connections. Being able to collaborate with colleagues at Earlham Institute, the John Innes Centre (JIC) or UEA, as well as Public Health England, means we can use this reputation for excellence to open up conversations, work together to share information and address the important questions relating to food safety.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science and research?

In Year 12 Biology, I remember learning about cells. I found that I could actually visualise their processes almost in three dimensions: how cells function and interact with each other inside our bodies. This ability to picture how cells and microbes go about their business – whether interacting with plants in soil or how cells form biofilms – inspired me to follow a path in science and was a huge benefit during my undergraduate degree in cell biotechnology at the University of Alberta, which properly started my career.

What do you get up to when you are not working?

I'm an avid cyclist and have ridden 2,000 miles around Norfolk since we moved to the UK last August. People say Norfolk is flat, but I'm from the Canadian prairies – I know flat! Norfolk actually has some hills compared to what I'm used to, but I love getting lost on the country lanes.

My wife, Sue, is a high school teacher in Wymondham and we have two sons, Thomas, 9, and Lucca, 6. In between lockdowns we visited all of the coastal areas in Norfolk to see the grey seals and hunt for fossils. The boys love experiencing all the history in Norwich. Thomas’s favourite place in the world is Mr P. Milne's Antiques & Curios – a centuries-old taxidermy shop on Elm Hill. Lucca is built for rugby, so we're excited to see what havoc he causes on the pitch!

Dr Matthew Gilmour is group leader at Quadram Institute at Norwich Research Park. You can follow him on Twitter @MATTwGilmour