According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 1 in 10 people across the globe get food poisoning every year, causing an estimated 420,000 deaths. United States agencies such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food Standards Agency (FDA) work to prevent food poisoning, as well as to trace the root of any foodborne illness outbreak. However, a new report from the CDC states that from 2016 to 2019, foodborne illnesses are on the rise with a 15% increase. One of the more difficult aspects of preventing a foodborne illness outbreaks is tracing the root cause of the contamination in order to recall all effected product. In this process, food producers and stores tend to lose both product and money, as food that is not contaminated is also pulled from shelves.
In response, a team at Harvard University is working to produce “barcoded” spores that will help trace and identify food poisoning sources. The spores are long lasting and can withstand time and cooking, making it easy to identify the barcode DNA strand that would be unique to each batch of crop. Traces of the barcoded spores were found even three months after being sprayed on various surfaces, withstanding diverse conditions such as rain and wind. On plants, the spores were able to be traced after one week and withstood several cooking techniques, including microwaving, boiling, frying, and washing the plants. The spores were made from strains of Bacillus subtilis bacteria and Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, which are harmless and inert, and were genetically engineered for specific DNA sequences that are able to be traced using Harvard’s rapid test. Both Bacillus subtilis bacteria and Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast lack a specific amino acid so they cannot reproduce unless fed, and they have both been genetically modified to remain dormant and harmless. A similar bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is already used on the majority of crops as a pesticide and a version that is genetically modified has already been approved by food standards agencies. Michael Springer, a team member from Harvard University, believes their barcoded spores could be effortlessly added to Bt at a low cost and should be approved for use without dispute. If approved, this low cost solution could save food producers and stores from the extremely costly process of a tracing a foodborne illness outbreak, allowing scientists to immediately track the source of the outbreak, making it possible for producers and stores to only pull effected product.