Scientists to develop global microorganism DNA database to tackle foodborne diseases

Professor Joergen Schlundt of the NTU Food Technology Centre, who spoke at the 12th Global Microbial Identifier Meeting at Nanyang Technological University on June 12, 2019. PHOTO: NTU

SINGAPORE - Just like the genetic databases used by police to nab offenders who leave their DNA at the crime scene, experts in foodborne disease are setting up a global data bank which will help them identify, track and treat outbreaks fast.

The effort will see laboratories and clinics around the world sharing the DNA of various strains of diseases (including foodborne diseases), and promises to transform the way food poisoning cases are contained.

It hinges on whole genome sequencing, the process of determining the DNA sequence of an organism's genome at a single time.

This would allow every microorganism in a patient, food or an animal to be identified and typed within hours, by checking it against the global database.

It would enable an almost perfect global surveillance of all diseases caused by microorganisms, say the advocates of such a database.

"This sequencing is going to revolutionise the way we investigate outbreaks and the way we do disease surveillance," said Dr Peter Ben Embarek, a scientist in the Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses (diseases spread between animals and humans) under the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The project was announced at the 12th meeting of the Global Microbial Identifier (GMI) Conference.

More than 250 scientists and experts from all around the world, including WHO and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) representatives, met in Singapore on Wednesday (June 12) to discuss new ways to combat food poisoning.

While the details are still being worked out, the ambitious plan comes at a time when cases of foodborne diseases, such as salmonella, are increasing.

Over the last decade in Singapore, the frequency of salmonella disease in humans has increased four to five times, mostly originating from imported food.

In the gastroenteritis outbreak in March this year, 13 PCF Sparkletots pre-schools and Plan Student Care Centres in total were hit with salmonella, which affected 259 children and staff.

The DNA database would help hospitals, clinics and animal laboratories detect, track and monitor human, animal and food-related communicable diseases.

  • Tips on how to avoid food poisoning

  • Keep clean

    While it is important to wash your hands before meals, it is equally important to wash your utensils as it lowers the possibility of being exposed to germs and bacteria while eating.

    Heat your food to above 70 deg C

    It will help to kill the existing bacteria in food, making it safe for consumption.

    If you need to store food, cool it below 5 deg C

    Keeping food warm can help bacteria to grow, so stored food should be chilled below 5 deg C.

    Separate raw and cooked food

    Raw food has bacteria in it that should be kept away from food meant for consumption.

    Use safe raw ingredients

    Raw ingredients, such as fish and even water, should be clean to ensure hygiene.

"Before that, it took time before we could isolate bacteria, but now we can very quickly isolate and identify more details of each bacteria. It will help us to prevent future outbreaks and reduce the number of people who get sick," added Dr Embarek.

The database will be managed by the GMI network, consisting of scientists and healthcare experts from 50 countries.

It will contain the full genomes of all investigated microorganisms around the world and provide quick characteristics and treatment options of microorganisms when they are detected in sick patients or food.

Although consumers can take steps to avoid getting sick from food, it is sometimes beyond their control, said Joergen Schlundt, professor at the NTU Food Technology Centre, who spoke at the GMI Conference.

"We often say the food safety is the responsibility of the consumer, but food safety is mostly the responsibility of the food industry and the authorities in the country. If the meat is already contaminated, no amount of precaution can keep consumers safe from diseases," added Professor Schlundt.

This DNA database is envisioned to serve as a centralised "One Health" surveillance solution that enables nation-states and the international community to control foodborne or other disease outbreaks efficiently.

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