By Kathryn Atkins
In 2015, the MnDRIVE initiative approved funding for a research project in Professor Abdennour Abbas’ laboratory to pursue food safety innovations. This research not only yielded ground-breaking technologies for rapid detection of bacteria to prevent food poisoning, but also the development of packaging that informs users if their food is safe to consume, the creation of a spin off company for clean water technology, and numerous benefits to our local community and to Minnesota.
Minnesota fell victim to a record-breaking salmonella outbreak in 2015 that reported 973 confirmed cases of food poisoning. Currently, detection of bacteria in food requires anywhere from hours to several days, sometimes weeks, and produces uncertain results while using expensive and environmentally harmful tests. This outbreak impacted nearly 1000 Minnesotans, and is just one example of our need for a fast and effective technology to detect foodborne pathogens. One environmentally harmful method the industry uses today to test for pathogens in food requires the use of blood from Horseshoe Crabs (a nearly endangered species). Thirty percent of these crabs die following extraction.
Through the MnDRIVE initiative, Abbas’ lab has created an accurate, cost effective and environmentally considerate test that can detect pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses within 30 minutes. This technology has the potential to impact our local community by not only enhancing food safety detection for all Minnesotans, but also offers a competitive advantage for the state’s food industry. This research has raised additional funding and engaged large Minnesota industry partners, such as General Mills and Schwan’s Foods, who are interested in ensuring their product’s safety.
Within two years of research, this project produced 6 U.S. patents and 6 peer-reviewed publications. The results from the lab were widely covered by local broadcast and online media outlets. These stories can be found in the Star Tribune, The Minnesota Daily, Food Technology Magazine, The USDA Echo Journal, KSTP-TV, and KARE 11. This exposure attracted high interest from the food industry, investors and academic collaborators.
This project in Abbas’ lab employed a team of 8 post-doctoral researchers and graduate students who each went on to pursue a successful career either in the food industry or academia. For their work in this initiative, they received 5 student awards in local and national competitions. This project was also used to develop an outreach program for underprivileged and minority high school students called Academic Mentorship for Students from Underrepresented Communities. There are currently three high school students who visit Abba’s lab once a week to learn more about science, engineering and technology. The knowledge they are gaining here will continue to follow them for the rest of their lives and give them access to a wide variety of opportunities they otherwise may not have had.
The research in this project has led to an unexpected invention for clean water technologies. A spin-off company was created, Claros Technologies Inc., and has led to the exciting development of a filter that quickly, inexpensively and safely removes toxins, such as mercury and phosphorus, from our lakes, rivers and waste streams. A second startup company focused on food safety testing is currently underway. “Our mission is to translate research into useful products that improve the quality of our lives and the environment,” Abbas said. These impacts from the research in Abbas’ lab may be compounding and exponential in the coming years, as food safety and clean water are two of the most important issues that we face on a global scale.