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.

Go deeper... The future of dining: shorter menus, pricer food, less service

Go deeper

Robert Mueller speaks out on Roger Stone commutation

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill on Wednesday July 24, 2019. Photo: The Washington Post / Contributor

Former special counsel Robert Mueller responded to claims from President Trump and his allies that Roger Stone was a "victim" in the Justice Department's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, writing in a Washington Post op-ed published Saturday: "He remains a convicted felon, and rightly so."

Why it matters: The rare public comments by Mueller come on the heels of President Trump's move to commute the sentence of his longtime associate, who was sentenced in February to 40 months in prison for crimes stemming from the Russia investigation. The controversial decision brought an abrupt end to the possibility of Stone spending time behind bars.

Trump dons face mask during Walter Reed visit

Trump wearing a face mask in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on July 11. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump wore a face mask during his Saturday visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, according to AP.

Why it matters: This is the first known occasion the president has appeared publicly with a facial covering as recommended by health officials since the coronavirus pandemic began, AP writes.

Updated 13 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 5:30 p.m. ET: 12,607,510 — Total deaths: 562,338 — Total recoveries — 6,948,863Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 5:30 p.m. ET: 3,228,884 — Total deaths: 134,600 — Total recoveries: 983,185 — Total tested: 38,919,421Map.
  3. Public health: Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: "Please wear a mask to save lives" Fauci hasn't briefed Trump on the coronavirus pandemic in at least two months — We're losing the war on the coronavirus.
  4. Food: How the coronavirus pandemic boosted alternative meat.
  5. Sports: Charge of "money grab" by college football.
  6. World: India reimposes lockdowns as coronavirus cases soar.