Farmers rue these losses -- no spinach, no tomatoes for
months at a time -- as much as or more than consumers. After all, the
crops are their livelihood and when they're pulled off the market, even
government relief programs can't help the farmers recoup their massive
Now cutting edge electronics are hoping to both protect the consumer's health
and their palate, which should bring relief to farmers. European
researchers have developed a prototype lab-on-a-chip test system, which tests
food on-site in less than an hour for campylobacter and salmonella.
Most food poisoning cases come from these two bacteria.
The new test chip uses microelectromechanical
systems including sensors, fluid channels, and optical components.
The chip is only one of two such systems known to exist in the world. The
goals of the project responsible, the European Union-funded OptoCard project,
is three-fold. Its goals are to detect pathogens in the food supply,
develop chips to detect
pathogens and contaminants in water supplies, and finally develop chips to
test human blood for cancer, hepatitis, AIDS and flu. Jesús M
Ruano-López, coordinator of the OptoLabCard project at Ikerlan-IK4 in Spain
stated, "The uses for these devices are almost endless… and the market is
While all of these tests are available, currently they require samples to be
sent to the lab and processed. This processing is a lengthy process and
can take days between the transportation and the analysis on antiquated
Different from previous lab-on-a-chip attempts, the new chip adopts several key
technologies. First it ditches specialize materials, forming most of its
components from a single thick negative photoresist layer. This allows
for cheaper, easier to produce chips. Additionally, the chip is
disposable -- the expensive optics and electronics are in the supporting reader
or base unit.
Perhaps the biggest breakthrough is in the chip design's sample preparation.
If a piece of pork containing salmonella was swabbed, only a dozen bacteria
might be picked up and past designs would declare it clean. The new chip
uses the much used magnetophoresis and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR)
technique to replicate bacterial DNA thousands of times. Ruano-López
explained, "By using PCR for sample preparation we can create more
concentrated bacteria samples, and because it works with DNA it means that the
same device can be used to detect many different types of bacteria and
The chip’s first real field test will come as it will soon be deployed in
Denmark at poultry farms. Dang Duong Bang, a senior researcher at the
Danish Institute for Food and Veterinary Research who will conduct the trial,
is pleased that the chip detects campylobacter as it is one of the most
prevalent bacteria in poultry. He added, "If the device works as
promised and leads to commercial products it will offer major benefits for
farmers, processors and especially consumers."
He points out that infections from the bacteria cause close to $1B USD in
treatment costs in the U.S. and $300M USD in Britain a year. By reducing
the number of infected animals reaching the market with field tests, great cost
savings would be achieved. Ruano-López predicts commercial prototypes to be
available within 3 years.
A spin-off company, named microLIQUID, has also been created to market the tech
from the project. The partners of the project have also commenced a new
project, LabOnFoil, which aims to replace silicon with thin foils in testing
systems. The hope is that these efforts will bring the cost down by a
factor of ten, down to about 50 cents a test. This would allow for skin
patches to monitor disease, contamination and drug abuse.
The new research promises to become a ubiquitous component in industries
worldwide. While the average consumer likely holds little interest in the
technical details, they will appreciate the benefits -- less food poisoning,
and less food recalls.
Funding for OptoLabCard was provided by the EU's Sixth Framework Programme for
research, while LabOnFoil is being funded by the Seventh Framework Programme.