Detecting foodborne contaminants before they strike
An international team of researchers is working on the development of portable, rapid sensor technology to detect foodborne contaminants. Scientists from the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) and Newcastle University in the UK have received a $750,000 partnership grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to aid in the creation of technology that can detect noroviruses and mycotoxins.
Noroviruses are highly contagious foodborne viruses that cause illness all over the world, to the point where they regularly instigate pandemics according to the project’s lead investigator Matthew Moore. They spread easily through foods and cause an unpleasant and acute illness.
“People can get really sick from foods that contain viruses and toxins,” Moore said. “We need a way to quickly and easily find out if a food contains these contaminants in a cheap but effective way — without the need to go back to a separate lab to do the testing.”
Mycotoxins are produced by fungi that grow in warm and humid environments on crops and food, particularly on grains, fresh produce, nuts, seeds and spices. They are dangerous for public health because they are likely to become more common in the face of climate change and an increased level of plant-based foods being consumed.
“One of the interesting things about mycotoxins as a foodborne contaminant is that they’re often not very acute, so you’re less likely to notice it. Oftentimes, the damage they do is more chronic, and they will mess with the kidneys and liver especially and can promote cancer.”
The researchers are thus trying to create a reliable, cheap, durable and possibly even reusable sensor to detect the contaminants in food long before they manage to infect anybody. The researchers will be working with molecularly imprinted polymer nanoparticles (nanoMIPs) for their sensors, as the team from Newcastle University have researched them in the past. The UMass team will bring its own expertise in virology, microbiology and food science.
“This nanoMIP-based sensing technology has numerous advantages,” Moore said. “It is very stable in intense conditions, and very portable. It is also quite inexpensive, a very important consideration in testing for foods.”
The technology has shown promise in other sectors such as detection of COVID-19, and the researchers believe they will be able to use it to detect foodborne contamination and prevent sickness in consumers.
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