Smartphone system more quickly detects foodborne pathogens

By Laura Lovett

Researchers at Purdue University have developed a new system that enables normal smartphones when paired with a phone cradle to detect foodborne pathogens in produce. 

“This technology could be used on a farm or in a food processing factory to provide on-the-spot detection,” Euiwon Bae, a senior research scientist in the Purdue School of Mechanical Engineering, who co-developed the technology, said in a statement. “This rapid detection is critical for getting safe produce to consumers.”

Recently there has been an uptake in foodborne illnesses. The latest update reported that as of May 8, 149 people have been infected with the outbreak strain of E.coli 0157:H7 in 29 states. In addition, this spring has also seen a Salmonella outbreak. Thus far 35 people in nine states have been infected with this latest strand of Salmonella Braenderup, according to the CDC. 

Users of the pathogen-detecting system first download an app on their phone, which works in conjunction with smartphone cradle. According to a statement, the cradle and phone work together as a luminometer, which is used to measure light. 

In order to test any food, a user must first wash the produce down with a liquid that contains a modified phage, or a virus for bacteria, which infects any harmful foodborne bacteria. When a substrate is added the harmful parts of the food will emit light, which is then detected by the smartphone’s camera through the downloaded app, according to a statement. The cradle enables this process by maximizing the photon collection through the use of diffusive reflection material, capturing as much light as possible. The app will show green dots where there is harmful food. Researchers say the technology can also detect infected water. 

“It’s sort of like reprogramming a computer,” Bruce Applegate, a lead developer of the system and a professor in the Purdue Department of Food Sciences, said in a statement. “We take the technology and manipulate it to detect various harmful pathogens that are present.”

Researches said this could cut down on the time it takes to get food tested for the pathogens, which typically requires shipping physical samples to a lab. 

Right now, the system is in the process of being commercialized by Purdue University-affiliated startup Phicrobe.