A simple, quick and economical genomic test can help stop the spread of E. coli and other dangerous contaminants
In the past few years, the largest beef recall in Canadian history and a deadly listeriosis outbreak have revealed how challenging it can be to protect people from tainted meat. But an automated genomic test developed by a team of University of Alberta (U. of A.) researchers has the potential to transform the way food producers detect E. coli and other bacteria, and to ensure that meat is safe to eat before it leaves the packing plant.
“Inspections only really find out whether companies are following food safety regulations,” says experimental oncologist Dr. Linda Pilarski, who is leading this project with microbiologist Dr. Lynn McMullen. “You need good technology to know if there are pathogens present.”
The platform created by the U of A colleagues is essentially a “molecular copying machine,” says Dr. Pilarski. A technologist who does not need special training can place bacteria from a meat sample in a cassette the size of a postage stamp, put the cassette inside a shoebox-sized device and press a button. Less than eight hours later — compared to the current one or two days — they will know whether disease-causing E. coli bacteria are present. And it will cost under 50 cents per sample for a comprehensive array of tests.
The third member of the U. of A. team is Dr. Patrick Pilarski, a biomedical device specialist who led development of the system’s software interface. “What allows this test to be so widely deployable and so simple,” he says, “is that the system involves automated analysis of detailed test data. It boils everything down to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision for the user, even though there is a lot happening under the hood.”
This diagnostic will help food producers maintain quality control in a cost-effective way. “The industry keeps telling us they want an answer within one work shift,” says Dr. McMullen. “Any time a company holds onto product and waits for results, it costs money. This gives producers a really quick, low-cost and accurate way to determine if food products are ready for shipping.”
While E. coli is the focus for now, the platform will be adapted to detect pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria and Campylobacter, and it could even be used to safeguard water quality in developing countries. “This technology is extremely flexible and can be adapted for any situation that involves a molecular test,” says Dr. Linda Pilarski, whose initial research explored applications to test for certain types of cancer and sexually transmitted infections. “This technology is very powerful, and it’s ready for commercialization.”