Articles — 29 July 2014

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, every year approximately 48 million Americans contract some form of food poisoning. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3000 die. Despite such high numbers, many of the practices of food providers, including supermarkets, are still often sub-par. The main reason for this is the cost and delay required to test all the food sold.

Listeriosis is one of the most common food-borne illness. This year, Whole Foods, Walmart, Wegmans and Trader Joes were all affected by a food recall. In compliance with normal procedure, fruit sold in these supermarkets were placed on the shelves and sold. Only afterwards, when the results of the Listeriosis test came in, did they realize that the Wawona Packing Company in California had sold them contaminated fruit. This required a massive recall of fruit at great expense. It also exposed the public to unnecessary risk of illness.

Current tests for food-borne illness, such a polymerase chain reaction (or PCR), Immunoassay, or bacterial culture method require a small sample of the produce to be sent to a specialized lab, grown into a bigger sample, tests to be conducted, analyzed, and the results reported. This can take anywhere from 8 to 12 regular shifts, during which time the fruit might be served up to friends and family around America.

As seems to often be the case lately, Synthetic Biology provides an elegant solution. A brand-new company called Sample6 has developed what it calls the first the first “in-plant, in-shift, pathogen detection and control system,” known as Sample6 Detect. Sample6 modified a bacteriophage to fluoresce slightly when it infects a Listeria monocytogenes bacterium. A sensitive desktop program can detect this fluorescence from even only a few bacteria. The video below provides a description of the test in more detail.

This method has several advantages. It is much faster for two reasons. First, the test does not require a culture of bacteria to be grown, a time-consuming requirement of all other Listeria tests. Secondly, the entire test can take place in-house by installing a testing station somewhere along the production line. This eliminates the need to shift samples and results back and forth between companies, which takes more time and is costly. Additionally, the system tracks all results of tests, providing the company with detailed reports and long-term analytics of the tests being performed.

By employing this test in food plants, companies can save time and money while keeping their customers safer. Ironically, this tests creates a dilemma for several companies. For example, Whole Foods is championing the “GMO: Right to Choose” campaign, whereby they require all their client companies to explicitly label all required foods as GMO and GMO-derived. Installing a permanent GMO-based test may require them to rethink their strategy.

Once again, the new synthetic biology industry provides an effective solution to a problem that has been around for many years. Now it is up to the industry it supports to decide if it is willing to utilize these amazing new tools.

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Dan Lipworth

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