‘Firefly’ chemical helps detect contamination in food

The chemical that gives fireflies their distinctive glow is being employed to detect contamination in food.

The Bioluminescent Assay in Real-Time (BART), jointly invented by Cardiff University’s Prof Jim Murray and Dr Laurence Tisi of Cambridge-based Lumora, allows users to test rapidly and simply for food-poisoning bacteria.

According to a statement, Prof Murray and his partners at technology company Lumora hope to develop the system to test for other diseases, including HIV-AIDS.

The BART system is said to detect specific DNA sequences by producing a light signal, using a version of the enzyme luciferase, which also produces light in fireflies. The breakthrough allows for quick and easy molecular testing, which previously required complex laboratory hardware.

The first BART system has been created for food-safety testing. Samples are placed inside a simple device, which can then test for the DNA of common food pathogens. If present, the bacteria trigger the luciferase to produce light. The device can produce results in 10 minutes to an hour, depending on the number of organisms being tested for.

Prof Murray said: ‘The food industry has been looking for dependable, fast and convenient microbiological testing for a long time. Our system will allow workers to test a wide variety of foods in a simple system that uses the most sensitive molecular technology. Portable versions of the device mean that it’s now even possible to test farm animals in the food chain.

‘We now want to apply BART technology to a range of other diseases. The most obvious and most pressing need is HIV-AIDS. Patients need to be continuously tested for their viral loads so that their treatment dosage can be adjusted. At the moment, this requires laboratory facilities that are in short supply in Africa. We hope to create a device that can be used easily in those countries.’