Lighting up Salmonella

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WASHINGTON — A new sensor employing biosensors and nanotechnology detects Salmonella cells and could one day help poultry processors, government inspectors and even epidemiologists find and identify pockets of the disease-causing pathogen in plants, poultry barns and other locations. Moreover, the research may lay the groundwork for similar biosensors that could detect and identify E. coli, Campylobacter, Staphylococcus and food toxins such as Ricin, Abrin and Clostridium Botulinum.

Developed after three years of research by an international team, with members from U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Research Service, the University of Georgia and the Food Research Institute in Korea, the biosensor attaches fluorescent organic dye particles to the cells, literally lighting them up for detection.

According to Bosoon Park at U.S.D.A.’s ARS research laboratory in Athens, Ga., the problem with Salmonella has always been detection speed and sensitivity. "The nanotechnology based biosensor has shown great potentials for foodborne pathogenic bacteria detection with high accuracy," he wrote to in an e-mail description of his research. "Early detection of foodborne pathogenic bacteria is critical to prevent public health. Current detection techniques such as ISO method 6579, fluorescent-antibody (FA), enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), polymerase chain reaction (PCR) are time-consuming, cumbersome, and limited sensitivity. The nanotechnology based biosensor has shown great potentials for protein, virus, and bacteria detection with high sensitivity and high resolution. The bio-functional nanorod is able to detect foodborne pathogens with high accuracy at very low concentration level."

Biosensors are found throughout nature. Insects use them to detect tiny amounts of sex pheromones in the environment and locate mates. Anadromous fish such as salmon and steelhead trout use biosensors to detect traces of their home streams and rivers in the ocean, at levels as little as one part per trillion, so they can return to their birth waters to spawn.

The team’s research was published earlier this year in the peer-review journal Nanotechnology, and Dr. Park recently was awarded the first-place Innovation Nano Research Award at the Sixth International Nanotech Symposium and Exhibition, in Ilsan, Korea.

"Now we are trying to develop an even higher sensitivity," Dr. Park told "The challenge that we have is non-specific binding." He said that in the laboratory the research team used "pure" cells of Salmonella; the next step will be to use the biosensors to detect Salmonella cells taken from poultry operations. In companion research, Dr. Park said he is also working with spectral imaging to detect the pathogen cells that the nano-biosensors marked with dye particles.

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