Detecting foul play in the food chain

Dr. Nelly Mateeva, Alexander Foster, & Edikan Archibong

As she strolls down the grocery-store aisle, eyeing shelves filled with cans, boxes and packages, Dr. Nelly Mateeva can't help but think about more than simply how each item might fit into tonight's dinner plans.

The staples awaiting the last leg of their journey to America's kitchen tables give this mother of two pause to ponder the vulnerability of the food supply as it progresses from field, to factory, to distribution, to consumption and to reflect on the toxin-detection research that her team undertook in the summer of 2009.

“Fortunately, bioterrorism is very rare, although it is a threat,” said Mateeva, an assistant professor in the Chemistry Department at Florida A&M University. “But when I hear about natural food-borne illness outbreaks “like the dioxin incident that caused a widespread pork recall in Ireland in late 2008” it brings home how vulnerable we are. A would-be terrorist could easily acquire toxins and deliver a lot of damage through food and water.”

Mateeva’s summer team helped to develop sensors to detect a deadly toxin called ricin, a natural toxin that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has designated as a possible agent of biological warfare.

She and two students from Florida A&M undergraduate Alexander Foster and grad student Edikan Archibong ventured north for an engaging assignment in two locations: the National Center for Food Protection & Defense (NCFPD) at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada; and the University of Minnesota. Their research was part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Summer Research Team Program for Minority Serving Institutions, funded by DHS and NCFPD, and administered by Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

In Canada, the team worked closely with NCFPD in its focus on the vulnerability of America's food system to intentional contamination with biological or chemical agents. In Minnesota, they researched the biological aspects of detection under the tutelage of Dr. Srinand Sreevatsan who specializes in molecular microbiology, epidemiology and diagnostic medicine. His lab is focused on defining the molecular mechanisms by which bacterial organisms establish infection.

Contamination of food and water in a terrorist attack would have catastrophic consequences for our society, Mateeva emphasized. “The time and efficiency of the reaction depends mainly on how quickly the contamination would be detected. The development of effective, low-cost sensors is of great importance for fast, on-site testing of contaminated food.”

Ricin is an enticing toxin for potential attackers since it is readily available, stable and easily spread.

“Ricin detection is possible today, but extracting and concentrating the toxin from foods is not an easy task,” she said. “The purpose of our research is to develop reliable sensors. The success of this research would provide a valuable tool for people who have to quickly detect the location, source and type of contamination and make a quick and proper first-response decision.”

Dr. Keith Warriner, a professor and food-microbiology researcher at NCFPD who worked closely with Mateeva’s team in Canada, praised the visiting researchers for their contributions to the ongoing quest for improved detection systems.

“They say the most significant advances in science occur when people from contrasting backgrounds come together and pool their knowledge,” he said. “Dr. Mateeva’s research team brought a fresh look at our project aimed at developing biohazard-extraction methods. We have been happy to show the team our techniques, which we hope that they will use when they get back home to establish their own research program in the diagnostic area.”

In addition to their research, the team visited Niagara Falls and toured Toronto. “Dr. Warriner and his students were excellent hosts who not only gave us access to their laboratory resources but also showed us the beauty of their country,” Mateeva said. “It was a great professional and cultural experience which resulted in productive research partnerships as well as numerous personal friendships.”

The two students on the team also took home ample benefits. “This program has given me the opportunity to associate with scientists in diverse and broad areas,” Archibong said. “The most exciting part was learning to operate the electrospinning machine and studying the chemistry behind elecrospun fibers.”

Foster called the summer “the best experience I have had since I started going to Florida A&M. As an undergraduate, I feel like a true scientist even before getting my degree.”

As for Mateeva, she’s thankful to participate in research aimed at ensuring that the food on her kitchen table this evening and the family enjoying it remains safe and secure. “It’s great to be part of the united efforts in the fight against a terrorist threat,” she said.