Biology researchers in the United Kingdom have developed a device that can detect foodborne pathogens using a variant of a simple, seemingly unlikely chemical: Firefly luciferase, the enzyme that makes fireflies’ abdomens light up.

The device, called “Bioluminescent Assay in Real-Time” (BART), pinpoints harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and Listeria on food by activating the luciferase in their presence, converting the bacteria’s DNA sequences into distinguishable patterns of light.

The device was developed by Jim Murray, Ph.D., professor of molecular biosciences at Cardiff University, and Laurence Tisi, Ph.D., CEO of Lumora, a molecular diagnostics development firm that specializes in technologies based on bioluminescence.

Bioluminescent technology has advanced the field of molecular detection by light-years. According to Murray, who was interviewed by the BBC, BART can process positive test results in 10 minutes to an hour, depending on the number of organisms under testing.

That would rank BART just ahead of the leading competitor in speed: Currently, the 3M Molecular Detection System, which also employs bioluminescent technology, produces results in 15 to 75 minutes. By comparison, more traditional pathogen detectors released in recent years have boasted processing times of less than 24 hours.

“This is a major breakthrough as molecular diagnostics is typically associated with complex and expensive hardware,” Lumora’s website claims.

“The result is the simplest, most robust hardware solution for real-time diagnostics ever developed.”

Along with shortening test times, technicians using BART will be able to ditch their lab coats in exchange for testing in the field: Portable versions of the device will allow for environmental testing, including tests on farm animals.

Beyond foodborne pathogen testing, Murray told the BBC that he hoped the device’s portability would allow it to be adopted for disease testing, especially in poorer regions, such as Africa, where HIV/AIDS testing is largely limited to a scarce few laboratories.

  • PLK

    Over the past 15 years, I’ve seen many new technologies for microbial testing of food and water. For many reasons (both technical and non-technical ), most of these new technologies never become commercially available.
    First, a commercial market must exist for the test; regulations for specific tests often drive the market for food and water testing. Next, the new test method/device must be evaluated and compared with current “gold” testing standards. Ideally, a process similar to EPA’s Alternate Test Procedure (ATP)should exist for foods. See
    Does such a program exist for foods? I’m not familiar with one.