New York scientists sequence DNA to fight foodborne disease outbreaks

Scientists at the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center Laboratories are using next-generation DNA sequencing techniques to pinpoint the source of Salmonella outbreaks.

By using benchtop whole genome sequencing equipment, clinical and public health labs are able to rapidly identify strains of Salmonella and speed up responses to potential outbreaks. Scientists at Wadsworth are applying the technology to follow outbreaks in real-time and test its effectiveness in a public health laboratory, according to a New York State Department of Health press release.

"Having this technology at our disposal will greatly enhance our capacity for protecting the public from foodborne illnesses, which sicken thousands of Americans every year," Howard Zucker, the department's acting commissioner, said. "Knowing the exact source of an outbreak can prevent illness from spreading and prevent many people from getting sick."

In a proof of concept published on July 16 in Emerging Infectious Diseases, Wadsworth scientists and researchers with the Cornell University Food Safety Lab used a case study of a 2010 Salmonella outbreak in a long-term care facility. When researching samples from the outbreak, the scientists found the outbreak was larger than originally suspected. In addition to seven facility residents who were identified as being sickened during the outbreak, the researchers found nine additional samples matching the bacterial strain from patients in surrounding communities.

"This suggests a common contaminated source outside the long-term care facility," the researchers said. "Knowledge of these cases at the time of the outbreak might have improved the chances of finding the outbreak source, which was never identified."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers food safety threats like Salmonella to be category B bioterrorism agents.