Ithaca, N.Y. — Food scientists at Cornell University have been looking at a special class of weapons the industry could use in its fight against foodborne pathogens.
The class of weapons is called bacteriophages. Their biggest enemy? Listeria monocytogenes, which often threatens meat, produce, cold-smoked seafood and dairy products, says News.Cornell.Edu.
New research on bacteriophages reveals that a few genetic gaps exist in which Listeria can evade bacteriophages (or phages). But the Cornell scientists believe these gaps can be plugged with a phage cocktail.
Thomas Denes, a Cornell doctoral candidate in comparative biomedical sciences and the lead author of the new research, says scientists are working on how to improve phages’ success rates. “We want to guard against phage-resistance so we can keep phage-based biological control on the table,” he adds.
In food safety, says News.Cornell.Edu, phages have been around for most of the last decade. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved them in 2007.
Phages work by infecting the bacterial host and transforming it into a phage-factory – essentially destroying the bacteria in the process, explains Denes.
Today, phages protect a wide variety of foods, including meat and dairy products. A phage solution may be misted on products or wiped throughout food facilities. Before phages, food manufacturers and producers opted for food-grade chemical products to ward off Listeria.
The researchers, says News.Cornell.Edu, showed that some strains of Listeria from the study did resist phage infection through a mechanism called “adsorption inhibition” – which is when molecules or particles fail to bind to a cell surface.
Denes explains that specially tailored combinations of phages – working in concert with each other to overcome resistance – may provide better long-term protection against Listeria than current phage products.
“After doing the basic science to learn how Listeria and phages interact at a genetic level, we can leverage this new knowledge to make an even more effective biocontrol – making our food supply safer,” he says.