Preventing Foodborne Illness Before It Happens

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By Alison DeLoach

Preventing outbreaks of foodborne pathogens is important to ensuring a safe food supply. Xiangyu Deng, an associate professor at the University of Georgia Food Safety Center, developed a new way to detect and subtype a foodborne pathogen more quickly than the traditional methods.

When identifying a foodborne pathogen, there are two processes: the detection process and the subtyping process. Detecting a foodborne pathogen simply means locating and identifying the pathogen. Subtyping, also known as fingerprinting, helps the scientist understand the history of the pathogen and trace it to where it came from. Normally these two processes are separated because one must detect the pathogen first and then isolate it from the sample.

Due to the separation of the two processes, it typically takes a long time for isolation to occur. The isolation process takes about one week, and the subtyping process takes another week. Deng combined both processes to produce a single work flow. “In one case, we were able to go from foods to the fingerprinting process within 24 hours,” he said.

By studying the DNA in a pathogen, Deng found a way to prevent the pathogen from spreading. He uses tiny magnetic beads coated with antibodies to pull pathogen cells out of the food. Once he has enough DNA to study the pathogen, he begins sequencing the DNA. Deng then uses a very small sequencing tool that is the size of a USB drive. The tool captures the data while sequencing the DNA.

This new way of detecting food pathogens will prevent food outbreaks before they happen. “In an outbreak system, you want to get the answer as quick as possible,” said Deng. This research can save many lives by creating a short turn-around time for detecting food pathogens.

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