Purdue’s New Biosensor Promises Real-Time Safety Checks for Fresh Produce

In a pioneering advancement, researchers at Purdue University have unveiled a novel biosensor technology designed to revolutionize the detection of contamination in fresh produce. Drawing inspiration from the rapid diagnostic techniques developed during the COVID-19 pandemic, this state-of-the-art system provides farmers with an efficient and precise method to ensure the safety of their crops. Demonstrating an unprecedented 100% accuracy within just an hour during field tests conducted on a commercial lettuce farm in Salinas, California, this technology holds the potential to significantly alter agricultural practices.

At the core of this breakthrough lies the use of Bacteroidales, a fecal indicator serving as a risk marker for contamination. Mohit Verma, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue, elaborated, “The approach we’ve taken is using a fecal indicator called Bacteroidales as a risk marker.” This innovative method has been documented in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics and is licensed through Krishi, a startup where Verma serves as Chief Technology Officer. Traditionally, contamination assessment in fresh produce involves detecting pathogens, which often leads to the discarding of entire crops if even minimal levels are detected—a significant challenge for items with short shelf lives. Verma’s team addressed this issue by applying Loop-Mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP) technology, previously used for diagnosing bovine respiratory disease and COVID-19, to paper-based devices, enabling rapid, on-site testing tailored for agricultural use.

Field tests were conducted utilizing plastic flags to collect bioaerosol samples both at a commercial lettuce farm and near Purdue’s Animal Sciences Research and Education Center in West Lafayette. By measuring Bacteroidales, researchers could assess the level of fecal contamination. Growers use a drop dispenser preloaded with liquid to swab the collection flags, which is then dispensed onto paper devices containing the necessary compounds for DNA detection. Once the paper device is placed into a heating imager, results are available within an hour, indicating the presence and concentration of Bacteroidales. This technology provides a quantitative measure, confirming suspicions about field contamination and enabling timely interventions.

Despite the promising accuracy of this system, Verma acknowledged the necessity of further testing across a broader contamination range. The current field tests lacked intermediate contamination samples, essential for comprehensive validation. Nonetheless, the assay’s ability to detect as few as three copies of Bacteroidales DNA per square centimeter suggests significant potential for widespread agricultural application. Lead authors Jiangshan Wang and Simerdeep Kaur spearheaded the development of the assays and paper-based devices, with notable contributions from the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering and the Elmore Family School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, particularly in developing the heating imager. This project underscores the Verma group’s capability to transition innovations from the lab to field testing, an achievement not easily attained. Verma highlighted the collaborative effort, acknowledging the extensive list of contributors.

Funding for this project was provided by the Center for Produce Safety, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service. The Purdue Innovates Office of Technology Commercialization has applied for a patent for this technology and issued a license to Krishi, which is currently raising capital to bring the technology to market. The introduction of this biosensor technology could mark a significant shift in agricultural practices, particularly in the realm of food safety. By enabling real-time, on-site detection of contamination, it addresses a critical need for efficiency and accuracy. The use of Bacteroidales as a fecal contamination marker is a novel approach that simplifies the detection process compared to traditional pathogen assessment methods.

Moreover, the adaptation of LAMP technology for agricultural use not only leverages advancements made during the COVID-19 pandemic but also demonstrates the versatility of this method. The collaboration across various departments at Purdue and the involvement of multiple funding bodies highlight the project’s interdisciplinary nature and the wide recognition of its potential impact. Looking ahead, the next steps for this technology will likely involve extensive field testing across a variety of crops and environmental conditions to establish robust contamination thresholds. This will be crucial for its practical deployment and widespread adoption. The involvement of Krishi, the startup aiming to commercialize this technology, indicates a promising trajectory towards market readiness. As the technology gains regulatory approvals and commercial backing, it could become a staple in agricultural practices, potentially setting new standards for food safety and contamination detection.

The success of this biosensor could also pave the way for similar innovations in other sectors, showcasing the potential for cross-industry applications of diagnostic technologies initially developed for healthcare. The future of agricultural safety appears brighter with such cutting-edge advancements on the horizon. Purdue University’s introduction of this innovative biosensor technology is set to transform the agricultural landscape by providing real-time, accurate detection of contamination in fresh produce. By drawing on the successes of rapid diagnostic methods used during the COVID-19 pandemic, the team has created a tool that could significantly enhance food safety and reduce waste. The collaborative efforts and ongoing research promise a future where farmers can more effectively protect their crops and consumers can enjoy safer, fresher produce.

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