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UMass Food Scientist Wins Award for Rapid Pathogen Detection

A University of Massachusetts food science researcher has won an award for developing a method of rapid pathogen detection in food.

The researcher, Sam Nugen, engineered viruses to identify and separate microbial contaminants from food. His methods may help food manufacturers skip the wait time for safety test results before products can be sold, according to UMass.

The researcher has been named one of two winners of the 2015 Future Leaders Award from the International Life Sciences Institute’s North America. ILSI awards the two-year, $15,000 international award to promising nutrition and food scientists each year to conduct research that might not otherwise receive funding.

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 shifted the Food and Drug Administration’s focus from responding to food contamination to preventing it, placing increasing pressure on food manufacturers to prove that their products are safe prior to shipping. Results from current testing methods, which involve sending a sample to a lab where a broth is prepared and any bacteria found are plated and grown, can take several days to a week. This adds to warehouse costs before shipping, according to a UMass press release.

“We’re working on separating bacteria from a food sample much more quickly, in minutes, so technologies that already exist for testing a clean sample can be used,” Nugen said in the release. “It should break the bottleneck in the system and save considerable time and expense.”

Nugen and his colleagues engineered viruses magnetized with cobalt nanoparticles, which can recognize and infect E. coli while separating it from a sample, according to the release. The infection changes the solution’s color, making the presence of E. coli known.

According to Nugen, about 46 percent of food-borne illness outbreaks come from fresh fruit and vegetables, which can’t be held in storage for testing without losing freshness and nutritional quality. According to the release, faster testing methods will make fresh produce safer for consumers.

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