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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 of foodborne illnesses affecting nearly 14,000 people. Pathogenic Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) was one of the most common causes of these outbreaks. In Alberta, we experienced a foodborne disease outbreak in late 2012. This outbreak was the result of pathogenic E. coli serotype O157:H7, and led to the largest meat recall in Canadian history. Outbreaks like these cause death, hospitalizations, massive economic losses and an overall loss of consumer confidence in food safety. Due to the time it takes to culture E. coli and amplify target gene sequences, current testing methods take a long time to complete and can only identify contamination many hours after the meat has been processed.

One of the factors that amplifies the risk of E. coli outbreaks is the lack of a rapid, on-site detection method. In response, our team is using synthetic biology to develop a system to rapidly detect the presence of EHEC in the beef industry. Although the beef industry provides a great starting point for this product, we could later expand such a sensor to to detect EHEC in a vegetables, water and even other livestock. 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 of EHEC in a sample. This system allows us to quickly identify contamination during meat processing and also provides the ability to pre-screen cattle to limit potential sources of contamination before cattle enter the processing plant. Our system not only provides a powerful new tool for food safety, but also has the potential to act as a platform for the rapid detection of target organisms. These tests could hugely impact a myriad of industry applications ranging from the everyday, large-scale use in food safety testing and medical screening, to the specialized use in the detection and monitoring of biological weapons and hazards.