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Our Project

Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses are a growing problem in our lives. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, identified 767 outbreaks affecting nearly 14,000 people of foodborne illnesses. Of these, pathogenic E. coli was a recurring theme in many of these outbreaks. In Alberta, we recently experienced our own foodborne disease outbreak in late 2012. This outbreak was the result of pathogenic E. coli serotype O157 and led to significant food recall alongside many hospitalizations, deaths, massive economic losses and an overall loss of consumer confidence in food safety. Current detection methods require long incubation times to amplify E. coli in the sample and followed by amplification to verify the presence of known genes that are associated with pathogenic E. coli.

One of the contributing factors connected with the outbreak in Alberta was the lack of rapid on-site detection systems available. Thus, the University of Calgary 2013 iGEM Collegiate team is using synthetic biology to develop system to rapidly detect the presence of pathogenic E. coli in the beef industry. By using engineered biological nanoparticles and DNA binding proteins we can specifically detect pathogenic DNA sequences. Our biosensor functions at the genomic level to detect the presence or absence of pathogenic E. coli in a given sample. This system allows us to pinpoint contamination during meat processing and also provides the ability to prescreen cattle in a preventative way to limit potential sources of contamination from the processing chain. Our system provides a powerful new tool for food safety, but also shows promise as a platform for the rapid detection of target organisms that are identified as key targets in a myriad of sectors from health to environment to biosecurity.