MSU researcher receives $769K grant to develop rapid test for foodborne pathogens

Evangelyn Alocilja, a world-renowned expert in rapid diagnostics for infectious disease, is developing the test to be used at poultry operations and processing facilities to inspect large samples.

Evangelyn Alocilja, a professor in the MSU Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering.

EAST LANSING, Mich. — A Michigan State University-led research team has received a $769,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to develop a rapid biosensor test for foodborne pathogens. The project is supported by NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

The rapid test will be used onsite at poultry farms and processing facilities to inspect large samples for Salmonella and Campylobacter, two common foodborne illness-causing bacteria.

Evangelyn Alocilja, a professor in the MSU Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, is leading the project. Alocilja, whose work is also supported by MSU AgBioResearch, is a world-renowned expert in rapid biosensing diagnostics for infectious and antimicrobial-resistant diseases, having developed such tests for tuberculosis, dengue and COVID-19.

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the U.S. economic burden of Salmonella and Campylobacter from all sources exceeded $6 billion in 2018. Alocilja said previous studies have shown poultry products are one of the most common sources of infection due to bacterial contamination from farm production practices and processing equipment.

Currently, pathogen detection is achieved through traditional bacterial culturing, which is time-intensive and often impractical. Existing rapid tests are expensive and may necessitate trained personnel and a laboratory-style environment, exacerbating the need for an inexpensive and easy-to-use alternative.

“Traditional culturing can take days or weeks, and some modern rapid tests are extremely expensive and require training,” Alocilja said. “The goal is to create rapid tests that are inexpensive and accessible, and easy enough to use that people from many different industries can implement them.”

For this project, the team’s objectives are to optimize Alocilja’s existing biosensor technologies for Salmonella and Campylobacter, develop a cell phone-based application that captures and analyses data from the test, and validate the process at several poultry farms and processing facilities.

Preliminary results showed the biosensor was able to detect genomic DNA of foodborne pathogens in roughly an hour. This method would drastically improve the responsiveness of operations looking to get their products to market as promptly as possible.

“We want to ensure that food is safe while also helping processors get their products into the hands of consumers quickly,” Alocilja said. “If we can troubleshoot problems before the products leave farms and processors, that would go a long way to improving profitability and food safety.”

Research outcomes will be shared at conferences and events nationwide, through extension-based outreach efforts, and Alocilja will use her role as founder of the Global Alliance for Rapid Diagnostics to reach colleagues around the world.

The project is a partnership between MSU and Tuskegee University. Tuskegee’s contributions will be led by Woubit Abebe, a collaborator on previous projects with Alocilja. She is a professor and director of Tuskegee’s Center for Food Animal Health and Food Safety. Alocilja said her engineering expertise combined with Abebe’s background in veterinary medicine makes for a unique partnership aimed at human health, animal health and food safety.

Diversity and inclusion are essential components to the project, using the work as a recruiting tool for underrepresented and minority students in STEM fields. Tuskegee is the lone historically black college or university with a fully accredited College of Veterinary Medicine that offers doctoral degrees. Most notably, Tuskegee has educated more than 70% of the African American veterinarians in the U.S. Through this partnership, Alocilja said she hopes to strengthen MSU’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Other MSU team members include Jeannine Schweihofer, a senior meat quality educator with MSU Extension; Tina Conklin, a food processing specialist with the MSU Product Center; Erica Rogers, an environmental extension educator with MSU Extension; and Zac Williams, a poultry outreach specialist with the Department of Animal Science.

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