While interest in the topic of food traceability has intensified due to a certain pandemic, tracking down the origin of food has been a puzzle scientists were trying to solve long before any of us heard of COVID-19.
Whether it’s food blockchain or edible food sensors, there’s been no shortage of ideas over the last few years for better food provenance. And now, thanks to a team of Harvard researchers, we have a new approach: using sprayable inert bacteria or yeast spores that could act like DNA “barcodes” to help identify us the source of food.
Here’s how the team described their discovery:
We created a synthetic, scalable microbial spore system that identifies object provenance in under 1 hour at meter-scale resolution and near single-spore sensitivity and can be safely introduced into and recovered from the environment.
What’s interesting to me is how durable the spores are, detectable all the way to the consumer plate as they withstand the cooking process.
To test out their idea, the researchers tested the microbes across various surfaces and put them through the paces of washing, frying and more.
The team then sprayed the spores on various surfaces including sand, soil, carpet and wood. They were able to detect them three months later even on surfaces that were swept or vacuumed, or subjected to simulated wind or rain.
Next the spores were sprayed on plants growing in pots. A week later, the team were able to identify which pot a leaf came from. To their surprise, the spores remained detectable even after washing, boiling, frying and microwaving. So if unique spores were sprayed on crops at different farms before harvesting, authorities could rapidly find out where any specific produce came from.
While the idea of putting inert spores on food holds significant potential as a way to help during outbreaks of food-borne disease, unlike other approaches like blockchain, this approach would not give us visibility into the myriad stops a food travels on its way to the consumer plate beyond its original source of origin. That said, it’s a promising new approach as we move towards a post-COVID world where food source tracking is fast becoming a requirement.