If the world’s food safety scientists act now, they have the opportunity to create a global network of microbial data that will dramatically improve the ability to track and combat disease outbreaks of all sorts, including foodborne illness outbreaks, significantly tackling the spread of disease worldwide. That was the argument put forward at the International Association for Food Protection this week in Indianapolis by Dr. Jørgen Schlundt, former director of the World Health Organization’s Department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Disease, and current director of the National Food Institute at the Technical University of Denmark. The network under proposal is called the Global Microbial Identifier (GMI), a global system of DNA genome databases sharing genetic information and microbes causing disease anywhere in the world. Schlundt sits on the GMI steering committee, along with international experts in microbiology, virology, epidemiology and bioinformatics, including Dr. Eric Brown, director of the Division of Microbiology in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Regulatory Science. The network would be made possible thanks to the advent of affordable DNA sequencing technology known as whole-genome sequencing. The technology is expected to revolutionize the field of disease outbreak investigation by providing much more precise identifying information on microorganisms compared to current industry standards, identifying a harmful microbe down to its DNA. “We’re getting some exciting science,” Schlundt said as he addressed the audience in Indianapolis. “We should use that to solve problems and help society.” Schlundt predicted a “major paradigm shift” in global public health in the next five to 10 years as laboratories worldwide transition to using whole-genome sequencing. Currently the cost to sequence a bacterial genome is competitive with other established sampling technologies in the range of $100, but could fall to less than $50 in the next five years, he said. Schlundt and others organizing the GMI have held six global meetings, all on their own dime, Schlundt said. The program is currently supported by approximately 140 specialists from 29 countries, with more encouraged to join and rally for support from governments. Along with being more precise than current standard sampling methods, genome sequencing operates as a one-test-fits-all method for all types of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, parasites) in all types of settings (human, animal, environmental), Schlundt said. With one single methodology being used on a global scale, data comparison will exist at levels previously impossible to achieve. “Foodborne outbreak investigation will improve dramatically,” Schlundt told the audience. With the globalization of food trade over the past half-century, the evolution to a truly globalized microbe network makes sense, he added. “At the international level, we have used rumors to investigate how microbes move,” he said. “Now we will have a real-time, lab-based resource to see how they spread.” GMI organizers plan for it to serve two functions:

  1. Identify all microorganisms and their resistances in all settings, enabling reductions in the time and cost to handle them.
  2. Organize a DNA database of microbiological strains of these organisms globally, enabling real-time global outbreak surveillance.
With the transition to genome sequencing on the horizon over the next five years, now was the time to establish such a program before dozens were created on national or regional scales, as have existed in the past with networks such as PulseNet, which is operated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Twenty years from now, we might say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if these 20 databases could be linked together?'” Schlundt said. “We have to do it now.” Schlundt admitted that much progress was left to be made on the political front. Some governments might not want to share their data because it could reveal unflattering information about their food systems, potentially hurting food exports or tourism. But if those governments don’t want to participate, they could be doing more to hurt their populations in the long run since developing countries could be left in the dark in terms of outbreak surveillance and the sharing of information. “There’s a dramatic potential to improve public health in developing countries,” he noted. During a question-and-answer session, some audience members expressed their doubts that the technology would be ready for real-time monitoring worldwide in the next five to 10 years. Schlundt said the technology is already being used by some public health labs. One person asked if the cost would keep local or regional labs with less funding from making the transition, and Schlundt said the case will be the opposite because, in a few years, the cost will fall to the point that it becomes the more economical option. One audience member asked how she could help or get involved with the project. Schlundt invited her and anyone else interested to the next meeting, which will be in York, England, in September.