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Preventing Foodborne Illnesses

New Sensor Will Help Detect Salmonella, E. coli

This strain of E. coli bacteria, magnified 6,836 times with a scanning electron microscope, produces a powerful toxin than can cause severe gastrointestinal illness.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

A mechanical engineering professor is developing a new tool that will help ensure that what you eat or drink doesn’t make you sick.

“Specifically, my students and I are designing a simple sensor for rapidly detecting major disease-causing microorganisms in food, especially in raw chicken, eggs, ground beef and dairy products,” says Hongwei Sun, an expert in micro electro-mechanical systems.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recognized the importance of his work and awarded him with a three-year, $100,000 grant.

A Growing Problem

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, roughly one in six Americans ߞ; or about 48 million people ߞ; gets sick from known and unknown bacteria, viruses and microbes. Of these, about 128,000 are hospitalized and about 3,000 die from complications.

These foodborne pathogens include norovirus, salmonella, clostridium, campylobacter, staphylococcus aureus, toxoplasma, listeria and E. coli O157:H7. The health costs associated with the resulting illnesses run in the billions of dollars.

In 2010 alone, an outbreak of salmonella poisoning led to a recall of more than 500 million eggs. That same year, people sickened by E. coli-contaminated meat spurred a recall of some 8,500 pounds of ground beef.

“We will combine magnetic immunoassays with micro Coulter counting technique to achieve simultaneous detection of multiple pathogenic bacteria in foods with high specificity and sensitivity,” says Sun, who is the principal investigator for the NSF project. “Our method, once optimized, can potentially be applied to detecting a wide range of other targets, such as viruses, toxins and disease-related biomarkers.”

Student Training

In addition to improved food and water safety and enhanced public health and homeland security, Sun says the project offers a multi-disciplinary training ground for undergraduate and graduate students involved in the research.

“The NSF award includes year-round undergraduate research projects, utilizing the NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates fellowships as well as UMass Lowell’s Women in Sciences and Engineering program, to boost the involvement of female minority students in research and community-outreach activities,” he says.

Asst. Prof. Hongwei Sun