Michigan’s laboratory toolbox now includes whole-genome sequencing, allowing public health officials to stop the spread of foodborne illness faster than ever.
Since January of 2017, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) has actively used whole-genome sequencing to precisely identify illness-causing pathogens and defend against widespread outbreaks of foodborne diseases.
MDARD’s Geagley Laboratory works in tandem with laboratories in the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s GenomeTrakr network, which allows global collaboration in the fight against foodborne illness.
“With food now being distributed worldwide, illness can be spread from anywhere in the world,” says Ted Gatesy, laboratory manager of the microbiology section at Geagley Lab, which houses the whole-genome sequencing. “Using whole-genome sequencing, an illness can be tracked, for the most part, to the point in the food chain where it originated.
Foodborne outbreaks used to have an effect on a lot of people before a pattern emerged and they were identified. Now, outbreaks are being recognized when a much smaller number of people have become ill.”
In most basic terms, whole-genome sequencing uses the DNA of an organism to determine all the genes that make up that organism. This information gives scientists and public health professionals the information they need to definitively identify the various species or subspecies of evolving pathogens. Illness-causing pathogens, like salmonella, listeria and E. coli, exist in varying forms and evolve over time.
“With whole-genome sequencing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can determine how closely related two organisms are,” Gatesy says, “and see if the lettuce in California that tested positive for salmonella and sickened someone in New York are caused by the same organism or a different one.”
The CDC estimates that foodborne diseases annually sicken 48 million people, hospitalize 128,000 and cause 3,000 to die. Whole-genome sequencing can help reduce human pain and suffering, and the significant economic loss caused to growers, distributors and retailers.
Throughout 2017 and most of 2018, MDARD’s Geagley Laboratory in East Lansing had sequenced nearly 500 foodborne organisms, about 20 from within the state and the remaining balance from other laboratories.
The resulting data enters the database of the GenomeTrakr network, a program that tracks pathogens and allots members the equipment to sequence pathogens.
“I’m excited about the future,” Gatesy says. “We’re getting better and better at reducing foodborne illness by finding it before it becomes a major foodborne outbreak. It’s gratifying to be a part of that.”