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Researchers develop tool using bacterial genomes to identify isolates

Thanks to some Cornell University scientists, the food industry has a new tool for identifying specific isolates behind foodborne illness which utilizes the genomes of Bacillus cereus. The study was published Aug. 9 in the journal BMC Genomics.

B. Cereus Spores

Cells of the B. cereus group isolate that contain endospores. (Micrographic image courtesy of Cornell University)

“Examining the whole genome of the B. cereus group is a more reliable tool for identifying risks associated with the presence of these bacteria in our food,” said lead author Jasna Kovac, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell’s Food Safety Laboratory and Milk Quality Improvement Program.

“The whole genome tool gives us better decision-making ability as to whether to recall food contaminated with these bacteria, making it important for consumer safety,” she added.

Bacillus bacteria can be present in all types of food. Since B. cereus may survive pasteurization and other heat treatment processes, it poses a challenge for the food industry. Certain isolates of B. cereus create no problems, but other isolates can cause diarrhea, nausea or vomiting when consumed.

Using the whole-genome sequencing tool, food producers can test bacteria found in products or environments to identify the illness-causing isolates.

“This tool becomes useful for food producers as it enables them to identify bacterial isolates that may cause disease and keep the contaminated products from entering the marketplace,” Kovac said.

Whole-genome sequencing is becoming less expensive, and Kovac believes it will be used more commonly in the future, along with traditional methods.

“It has the potential to be used throughout the entire food industry. When food producers need to make a decision fast, this will be their first choice,” she predicted.

In addition to Kovac, the research was conducted by Cornell doctoral students Rachel A. Miller, Sarah Beno and Laura Carroll, graduate student Jiahui Jian, technician David J. Kent, and the paper’s senior author, Martin Wiedmann, Cornell’s Gellert Family Professor in Food Safety.

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