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27Jul

New device could help identify disease outbreaks

New device could help identify disease outbreaks
Words and images supplied by Lincoln University


Lincoln University will play a significant role in identifying plant, animal and disease outbreaks after receiving a game-changing piece of technology from two senior food safety researchers in the United States.

The BEAM device, which is a scanner for quickly identifying harmful strains of bacteria in food, is the only one of its kind available in New Zealand.

The technology was developed at Purdue University in Indiana with an initial focus on the United States market. It has been offered free of charge to Lincoln University Associate Professor Stephen On, in recognition of his taxonomic skills and common interests with the US researchers.  

The unique BEAM technology is designed to better identify disease outbreaks by providing a “specific fingerprint” of bacteria that has been cultured on a standard agar media plate.

This allows scientists to pinpoint strains of interest more quickly, with a particular focus on pathogens.

“If there’s an outbreak of E. coli or Salmonella, for example, you may have dozens of samples to examine,” said Dr On. “The technology provides the major advantage of identifying the pathogen of concern by rapidly screening it from microorganisms naturally present in food or clinical samples.

“Because it is non-invasive, you can take your isolate of interest and further characterise it with sub-typing methodologies to better identify an outbreak.

“No comparable technology is available elsewhere – it’s a real game-changer.”

Dr On will explore the utility of BEAM in investigations that encompass microbiological aspects never examined, such as characterisations of Saccaromyces, Kluyveromyces and Toluraspora strains used in New Zealand wine production. This means farmers could be able to detect plant and soil health problems much more quickly.

Dr On visited Purdue University in 2015 to investigate whether the BEAM technology would be relevant to New Zealand.

Early work has already shown 26 pathogenic E. coli strains important to New Zealand meat products.

“They showed the potential value of BEAM to national problems and indicated that the method might be capable of identifying E. coli strains with a higher infection potential than others. This is a first in the history of underpinning BEAM research.”

Dr On will examine a geographically diverse range of strains of microbial species of clinical and economic importance to New Zealand.

He said the economic and public health significance of pathogenic E. coli remained of critical importance and partners of the NZ Food Safety and Science Research Centre (including ESR and Plant & Food Research) had identified other bacterial pathogens of concern, including Campylobacter and Listeria.

“This will require improvements in diagnostics,” he said.

Dr On’s expertise encompasses the theory and practice of microbial taxonomy, notably including the development, evaluation and application of an extensive range of phenotypic and genotypic identification systems for bacteria.

The New Zealand-focused research will complement studies already being undertaken in the US by Endowed Cytometry Professor J. Paul Robinson, of Purdue University, and Professor James Lindsay, senior national program leader for the US Department of Agriculture.

The data will be pooled for maximum global impact.

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