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Foodborne Illnesses and DNA

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 3 Jan 2013 | comments*Discuss
 
Dna Foodborne Illness Foods Beverages

Many of us will suffer from a foodborne illness at some point in our lives. They can leave us with stomach cramps, diarrhoea and a terrible feeling of malaise. Most foodborne illnesses, however, are preventable and with enough care and attention to safer food handling procedures, they can generally be avoided. Still, human error will likely always exist and foodborne illnesses will inevitably strike. Fortunately, DNA has some important applications when foodborne illnesses do strike, especially in terms of rapidly identifying the strain of bacteria and then attempting to match it up with bacteria elsewhere to determine its origin.

What are Foodborne Illnesses?

Foodborne illnesses occur when a person consumes a foodstuff or beverage that is tainted with a microbe or pathogen. There are numerous different types of foodborne illness - more than two hundred and fifty have been identified. The culprit gains access to the body through the gastrointestinal tract and symptoms can begin shortly afterwards or they may take several days to occur. When we refer to an illness as foodborne, it means that the microbe or pathogen was spread through food or a beverage. It is important to keep in mind that microbes can be spread in many other different ways. How the microbe is spread matters a great deal because in the case of foodborne illness, authorities need to identify the originating food so that they can learn how to prevent the microbe from spreading further.

DNA and its Important Role

DNA plays an integral role in the prevention of foodborne illness. It encodes the information that allows bacteria to grow, reproduce and make people ill. Think about how it is that someone suspects a foodborne illness may have occurred. Perhaps one person begins to experience symptoms but passes it off as a bit of indigestion or a stomach flu. But then, that person's friends also begin to experience symptoms, which begins to wave the foodborne illness flag. A doctor may even notice that several patients seem to be suffering from the same stomach ailment.

In many countries, the government health department is automatically notified when a person tests positive for a foodborne illness after visiting their doctor. This can help authorities to identify if an outbreak has occurred. DNA fingerprinting technology helps to make detection of an outbreak of foodborne illness much easier. This type of technology helps a laboratory to look at the differences between strains of a bacteria or similar pathogen. In one 2003 case, DNA fingerprinting allowed laboratory technicians to determine that a strain of E.coli that caused the death of a woman in one state came from a meat plant that was located over one thousand miles away. This type of identification can help authorities to quickly isolate the geographic location where the bacteria originated and can then prevent others from consuming tainted products.

Foodborne illnesses are extremely unpleasant and they are largely preventable. Still, sometimes they can still occur despite a relatively good standard of hygiene. In such cases, DNA fingerprinting can be important in helping to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses, particularly when the strain is a deadly one.

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