Finding bacteria in food and water

Scientists develop low-cost tool for detecting bacteria

Analytical chemist and expert in detection methods for food contamination Lili He, together with her colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, have developed a new, rapid and low-cost method for detecting bacteria in water or a food sample. Once commercially available, it should be useful to cooks using fresh fruits and vegetables, for example, and aid workers in the field responding to natural disasters, Miss He claims.

"Most people around the world cook their vegetables before eating, but here in the U.S. more and more people like to eat these foods raw. This gave us the idea that a quick test -that can be done at home- would be a good idea. Microbial contamination is an important research topic right now. It has been a problem for a long time, but it is now the number one concern for food safety in the U.S."

The team designed a sensitive and reliable bacteria-detecting chip that can test whether fresh spinach or apple juice, for example, carry a bacterial load. The chip, used with a light microscope for optical detection, relies on what He calls a "capture molecule," 3-mercaptophenylboronic acid (3-MBPA) that attracts and binds to any bacteria. The chemical detection method, "surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy" (SERS), relies on silver nanoparticles. The techniques are now in the patenting process.

Phys.org learned that over the past summer, the optical detection method was adapted for possible home use with a smart phone microscope adapter that is widely available online for about $30.

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