Foodborne Illness & Agriculture

California is the leading producer of leafy green vegetables, whose sale contributes roughly 40% a year to our state's economy and provides 22.2 million jobs for people working in the agricultural and food sectors—10.9% of total U.S. employment. Other products such as ground beef play an important role in the economy as well, with a profit of 2.74 billion dollars in 2020. However, production of vegetables and meat opens the door for many pathogens in cattle and soil to be transmitted to humans, who may fall ill from the consumption of contaminated foods.

A main agricultural threat to human health is Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), which can be transmitted to people through consumption of contaminated lettuce and meat products, causing diarrhea and Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), a potentially fatal kidney disorder. STEC is one of the top 3 foodborne illnesses due to the high demand for greens and meat, but the detection and prevention of contaminated food is hard to manage on such a large scale. Seeing as we are a California team in an agriculture-centric area, it became important for us to look into the threats of foodborne illness coming from our own backyard in hopes to prevent outbreaks at the source of the issue.

Our Solution

We designed a method to disarm pathogenic bacteria without the need for antibiotics. By creating a sequence-specific gene targeting system that utilizes INTEGRATE—an RNA-guided transposition technique—we created a solution that can be adapted to target genes in a variety of bacterial species, decreasing the possibility of foodborne illness, and slowing the spread of antimicrobial resistance.