WASHINGTON – The Food and Drug Administration is investing in whole genome sequencing technology to identify outbreak sources with more detail and clarity than in the past. Just as crime labs can link DNA to a suspect, public health officials are using genome sequencing technology to link harmful foodborne pathogens to illness outbreaks.

State, federal and international public health agencies are working cooperatively to sequence pathogens collected from foodborne outbreaks, contaminated food products and environmental sources. The genome sequences are archived and publically available in a global database called GenomeTrakr.

“It’s just been a really exciting project to work on,” said Steven Musser, Ph.D., deputy director for scientific operations at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). “It’s a real feather in FDA’s cap to be a true world leader in a public health system that is going to have such a positive impact on American lives.”

Researchers first used the genome sequencer to screen foods for harmful bacteria. But the technology’s potential was realized during a 2012 examination of a completedSalmonellaBareilly outbreak. Investigators linked the outbreak to tuna sushi from a plant in Southwest India. The retrospective examination established a genetic link between theSalmonella Bareilly and the area surrounding the source of the outbreak, according to the FDA.

FDA said labs in the GenomeTrakr network have so far contributed 5,000 isolates to the database, including the pure form of Salmonella,E. coliandListeria. FDA is currently working with the World Health Organization to expand the network to food safety laboratories in other countries. Food safety experts from Italy already received training on whole genome sequencing at CFSAN. The agency is planning a trip to Ireland to work with public health counterparts in that country.