Scientists from McMaster University have come up with a novel solution to keep food safe, using a newly developed spray loaded with bacteria-eating viruses to keep produce free from contaminants and harmful pathogens. The star of the show here is bacteriophages, which are harmless viruses that eat bacteria, and scientists hope that the product could be used commercially to keep food effectively free of disease-causing bacteria.
The science and other stuff to know
The breakthrough research was conducted by Zeinab Hosseinidoust and Tohid Didar, who hold the Canada Research Chair in Bacteriophage Bioengineering, and Canada Research Chair in Nano-Biomaterials, respectively, along with graduate student Lei Tian.
“When we spray it on food, we basically gather billions of mini-soldiers to protect our food from bacterial contamination,” Tian told Phys.org.
The researchers created a method to coax bacteriophages into banding together and producing minuscule beads in order to find the solution. These beads can be used to clean food and other items of dangerous bacteria like E. coli 0157. Each bead has a diameter of roughly 20 microns, or one fiftieth of a millimeter, and contains millions of phages, Phys.org reported.
The spray produced as a result of this study consists of nothing but these beads. The latest study is the next step in Hosseinidoust’s earlier work which had previously succeeded in triggering phages to connect to one another in quantities sufficient to form a gel.
“They link together like microscopic Lego pieces,” she told Phys.org. “This organized natural structure makes them much more durable and easier to package, store and use.”
Phages occur naturally in the body and in the environment and once they target bacteria, they multiply and increase their microbial potential. It’s like their growth depends on harmful bacteria. “It’s a chain reaction, creating a dynamic and ongoing response that is even more overpowering than antibiotics,” Didar explained. “No other antibacterial product—not even bleach—has the special properties that phages do.”
What makes phages more unique is that while they have the ability to eat through harmful bacteria, their use in a targeted fashion would spare bacteria essential for enhancing food’s taste and smell. Phages and research on phages were once the focus of attention of scientists looking for medication to fight diseases. But the discovery of penicillin shifted that focus to antibiotics.
However, there has been a renewed interest in phages, especially since diseases have developed antimicrobial resistance and phages have received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in food.
The study successfully showed that the spray could eliminate E. coli 0157 in readily consumable vegetables like lettuce and meat, which happen to be routine culprits in disease outbreaks. The researchers believe the spray has a huge potential for commercial usage and could become an effective decontaminant in “food processing, packaging and cleaning, and even as a treatment for irrigation water and equipment, stopping contamination at the source”, Phys.org reported.
They also said that a similar approach involving phages could be studied to target other bacteria that lead to food poisoning, such as salmonella. The WHO estimates that eating contaminated food causes over 600 million people to become ill and over 420,000 to pass away every year.
Food-borne diseases carry a big potential to cause pain and suffering in the human population, and a spray that is both organic and highly effective could make food so much safer, healthier, and hopefully, tastier.