A “game-changing” piece of technology for quickly identifying harmful strains of bacteria in food has become available in New Zealand, thanks to a partnership between a Lincoln University taxonomy expert and two US senior food safety researchers.
The scanner, called a BEAM device, was developed at Purdue University in Indiana with an initial focus on the United States market.
It has been offered free of charge to Lincoln University Associate Professor Stephen On and is the only device of its kind outside the US.
Dr On recently received an $80,000 Catalyst grant from the Royal Society Te Apārangi to use the scanner for New Zealand-focused research that will complement studies already being undertaken in the United States.
The resulting data will be pooled for maximum global impact.
The scanner is designed to better identify disease outbreaks by providing a “specific fingerprint” of bacteria cultured on a standard agar media plate.
This allows scientists to pinpoint strains of interest more quickly, with a particular focus on pathogens.
“If there’s an outbreak of E. coli or Salmonella, for example, you may have dozens of samples to examine,” said Dr On.
“The technology provides the major advantage of identifying the pathogen of concern by rapidly screening it from microorganisms naturally present in food or clinical samples.
“Because it’s non-invasive, you can take your isolate of interest and further characterise it with sub-typing methodologies to better identify an outbreak
“No comparable technology is available elsewhere – it’s a game-changer.”
The project with the US experts came about after Dr On visited Purdue University in 2015 to investigate whether the BEAM technology would be relevant to New Zealand.
The results, some of which involved 26 pathogenic E. coli strains important to New Zealand meat products, were promising.
“They showed the potential value of BEAM to national problems and indicated that the method might be capable of identifying E. coli strains with a higher infection potential than others,” said Dr On.
“This is a first in the history of underpinning BEAM research.”
The United States researchers are Endowed Cytometry Professor J. Paul Robinson, of Purdue University, and Professor James Lindsay, senior national program leader for the US Department of Agriculture.
Dr On will work with them to examine a geographically diverse range of strains of microbial species of clinical and economic importance to New Zealand and the US.
He said the economic and public health significance of pathogenic E. coli remained of critical importance and partners of the NZ Food Safety and Science Research Centre (including ESR and Plant & Food Research) had identified other bacterial pathogens of concern, including Campylobacter and Listeria.
This requires improvements in diagnostics, he said.
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