Jill Neimark (@jillneimark) of Scientific American reports on developments in the field.

There’s been an enormous focus on food safety in the news, and with good reason: foodborne pathogens sicken millions of Americans, hospitalizing 128,000 and killing 3,000 each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Food fraud is also increasing. Mislabeled food can pose serious health risks to individuals, who may be allergic to certain foods or ingredients.

Tools that analyze food’s DNA may help solve these problems, and they are becoming less expensive and more readily available.

“Techniques ranging from whole genome sequencing to the ability to create artificial DNA labels that indicate points of origin are surprisingly affordable now, and have led to novel global collaborations and inventions. Scientists worldwide are working to create databases of foodborne microbial strains, sequence the most common pathogens and tag foods for immediate traceability. The new initiatives promise to speed investigations and reduce foodborne illnesses and deaths; the techniques could also spot food fakery by marketers.”

The article also discusses Genome Trakr, a project involving UC Davis, the FDA, and Agilent Technologies. In development is a database that will contain the DNA of 100,000 foodborne pathogens. The project has been expanded to China; researchers there will map another 10,000 genomes, according to Bart Weimer, a professor at UC Davis and the project’s director. The data will be available free-of-charge to scientists and public health officials.

“The technology maps the entire DNA sequence of a microbe, and allows scientists to distinguish one strain from another, allowing fast track-back and earlier elimination of outbreaks around the world. The technology enables “trace-back”, which can help to identify cluster outbreaks and halt their spread.”

The article is a valuable and interesting read for individuals who want to learn more about genome sequencing, and how the technology is being applied.