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Crops Sprayed With Genetically Barcoded Microbes Could Help Trace Food Poisoning

Crops Sprayed With Genetically Barcoded Microbes Could Help Trace Food Poisoning

A team of Harvard scientists is making the task of tracing the origin of contaminated items easier.

Spraying crops with bacterial or yeast spores that have unique DNA “barcodes” would make food safer by allowing the source of food poisoning to be rapidly identified, said a team at Harvard University. In a novel solution that can help determine the origin of agricultural products and other goods, Harvard Medical School scientists have developed a DNA-barcoded microbial system that can be used to label objects in an inexpensive, scalable and reliable manner.

The team genetically engineered the bacteria, developed a rapid test for them and showed that the spores – which are inert and harmless – persist and remain detectable, even on cooked food. They engineered strains of Bacillus subtilis bacteria and Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast to give them unique DNA “barcode” sequences. These species are very common and also form tough, long-lasting spores.


Related: How Do US Consumers Feel About Genetically Modified Foods?


It’s estimated that almost one in ten people worldwide get food poisoning and more than 400,000 die of it every year, according to the World Health Organization. Tracing the source of contamination is difficult and can take many weeks, said Jason Qian at Harvard University.

The team sprayed the spores on various surfaces including sand, soil, carpet and wood. They were able to detect them three months later even on surfaces that were swept or vacuumed, or subjected to simulated wind or rain.

Next, the spores were sprayed on plants growing in pots. A week later, the team was able to identify which pot a leaf came from. To their surprise, the spores remained detectable even after washing, boiling, frying and microwaving. So if unique spores were sprayed on crops at different farms before harvesting, authorities could rapidly find out where any specific produce came from.

Food poisoning outbreaks can be very costly for food producers and shops, Qian said, because a great deal of food often has to be taken off shelves as a precaution until the precise source of an outbreak is pinpointed.

Many farmers, including organic farmers, already spray their crops with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) spores to kill pests. In fact, the team detected Bt spores on ten out of 24 store-bought food items. Barcoded spores could easily be added to Bt sprays, Qian said, without added costs.

Genetically modified strains of Bt have already been approved for use by farmers, says team member Michael Springer, also at Harvard University. For this reason, the team does not think it would be difficult to get regulatory approval in the US for barcoded spores.

Whether the public would approve is another matter. “Most people don’t even realize that Bt has been used since the 1960s,” Springer said. The team is working with a company interested in commercializing the technology.