Following the initial isolation and description in 1926, L. monocytogenes has been shown to be of world-wide prevalence and is associated with serious disease in a wide variety of animals, including man. Our knowledge of this bacterial pathogen and the various forms of listeriosis that it causes has until recently been extremely limited, but recent advances in taxonomy, isolation methods, bacterial typing, molecular biology and cell biology have extended our knowledge. It is an exquisitely adaptable environmental bacterium capable of existing both as an animal pathogen and plant saprophyte with a powerful array of regulated virulence factors.
Most cases of listeriosis arise from the ingestion of contaminated food and in the UK the disease is particularly common in ruminants fed on silage. Although a number of forms of listeriosis are easily recognized, such as encephalitis, abortion and septicaemia, the epidemiological aspects and pathogenesis of infection in ruminants remain poorly understood. The invasion of peripheral nerve cells and rapid entry into the brain is postulated as a unique characteristic of its virulence, but relevant and practical disease models are still required to investigate this phenomenon.