Lettuce surveillance. Photo: Valery Matytsin\TASS via Getty Images

New research suggests that synthetic bacterial spores programmed with DNA barcodes could be used to track objects through a supply chain.

Why it matters: Each year, there are an estimated 48 million cases of food-borne illness in the U.S., causing 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. The technology could make it easier to trace a product's path from supplier to customer in the event of food-borne contamination.

Background: When authorities see evidence of an outbreak of a food-borne illness like E. coli, they need to quickly identify the contaminated food and trace it back to its source.

  • Given the length of supply chains — and the fact that one head of industrial lettuce looks much like the rest — that can be incredibly challenging.

What's happening: Researchers led by Jason Qian at Harvard Medical School developed a means of tagging items with synthetic spores that contain a unique DNA barcode.

  • The barcode, which is programmed with about 38 DNA base pairs, can indicate where an item originated, aiding any investigation.
  • Unlike UPC barcodes physically attached to packaging, the DNA barcode is encased in a tough spore and sprayed on a product. It can persist in diverse ecosystems within the item, ensuring it will survive from farm to table.
  • To read the barcode, researchers merely need to extract DNA from the product and run a detection assay on it.

Of note: If it feels weird to think about eating lettuce with engineered spores attached to it, know that we consume microbes with our food all the time — including phages sprayed on meat to prevent bacterial contamination.

The bottom line: The newest frontier of surveillance is the supermarket.

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