Sometimes, the foods that make you sickest are the ones that passed the – literal and figurative – sniff test. In determining food safety, there can be more guesswork than is comfortable. But soon, standing in front of your fridge wondering if that package of frozen hamburgers, whose batch number isn’t quite the one that was recalled, is worth the risk, will be a thing of the past.
Scientists have developed a new weapon for the food contamination detection arsenal, which can make the presence of the bacteria E. coli too obvious to miss. (E. coli, usually found in the guts of healthy people, can cause severe gastric distress if ingested by mouth. It can be found in ground beef, unpasteurized milk, and produce, like lettuce or spinach, that may have been exposed to farm runoff.) It’s a virus called NanoLuc, engineered from Oplophorus gracilirostris, a deep-sea shrimp that glows blue. NanoLuc is designed to infect only E. coli, and when it does so, the bacteria glows visibly, much like the shrimp. That “makes contaminant detection as simple as turning off the lights”!
Researchers are now busy creating a virus that will infect Salmonella, another cause of food-borne illness. An invention like this can not only prevent the personal discomfort of a bout of food poisoning, but can save food companies the money usually spent on giant recalls — as well as the medical system’s time and resources. (E. coli infections can be life-threatening). Delicious!