Researchers at Tuskegee University’s College of Veterinary Medicine have been awarded a patent for a faster and more efficient way to detect live bacteria that could contaminate the nation’s food supply.

U.S. Patent No. 9434976 was issued for the rapid and more reliable detection of viable foodborne, biothreat pathogens and other infectious microbes using modified Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) sample preparation.

In 2014 the same researcher group from Tuskegee University attained a patent for a time-saving method of determining multiple foodborne and biothreat pathogens in food items such as meat, milk and vegetables.

“As with our previous patent, we are again advancing research in microbe detection,” said Dr. Teshome Yehualaeshet, principal investigator for the project. “This time what is so unique about the discovery is not only do we save time but we also improve the accuracy of a technique by enabling the detection of viable or living organisms.”

The discoveries of the Tuskegee team are an example of the groundbreaking research being carried out at Alabama’s universities. An estimated $2.4 billion in federal research and development funds are spent each year in Alabama.

Improved reaction

Drs. Temesgen Samuel, Woubit S. Abdela, and Tsegaye Habtemariam served as co-investigators on the Tuskegee research project. Along with Yehualaeshet, they are faculty members in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Pathobiology.

From left, principal investigator Dr. Teshome Yehualaeshet collaborates with co-investigators Dr. Temesgen Samuel, Dr. Woubit S. Abdela and Dr. Tsegaye Habtemariam in the Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine’s microbiology and molecular laboratory. (Tuskegee University)

“PCR has been developed decades back, and the time spent for conventional PCR and our PCR — we call it viability PCR — protocol is the same,” Yehualaeshet said. “The novel aspect of our patent is that we developed a modified sample preparation, which enables the PCR to detect only viable, or live, bacteria.”

That’s important, he said, because the risk of contamination and disease comes from live bacteria.

“If a detection method could not differentiate the dead from the live bacteria, then there is always a risk of false positive alarm,” he said.

Food protection

The Tuskegee team’s research was funded by the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, which was renamed the Food Protection and Defense Institute (FPDI).

FPDI is one of the Homeland Security Centers of Excellence at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. It supports a multidisciplinary, action-oriented research consortium to safeguard the food system comprehensively from farm to table.

Tuskegee is one of the historically black universities that receives FPDI funding.

The research team acknowledges Dr. Frank F. Busta, founding director and director emeritus for the FPDI, for his support of its work, as well the faculty and staff at Tuskegee.

Broad applications

The potential applications of the patent are broad, particularly in the food industry, Yehualaeshet said.

Dr. Teshome Yehualaeshet talks with a student during Phi Zeta Research Day. Yehualaeshet leads a team that recently patented an improved method of detecting foodborne bacteria. (Tuskegee University)