As any person who has had reason to think they were going to be found dead on the toilet can tell you, food poisoning is not something to be glib about. In fact, the CDC estimates that one out of every six Americans are felled by contaminated food every year, and many of those cases are the result of both the safety and environmental practices in the factory farm system. Currently it can take weeks to track down the source of the latest salmonella or e. coli outbreak, but soon it may take only days, thanks to a team of scientists at Harvard who have found a way to tag produce with microscopic “barcodes.”
New Scientist reports that the team has genetically engineered strains of Bacillus subtilis bacteria and Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast to give them unique DNA sequences which, when sprayed on crops, would allow contaminated food to quickly be traced back to the farm it originated from. The microorganism are inert, and they are tough enough to produce nearly indestructible spores that are detectable even after cooking. Spraying spores on crops to keep pests at bay is already a common farming practice; adding custom “barcoded” spores to their existing sprays would do little to affect regular operations.
The new spores do not have government approval yet, but the team is optimistic that they will be cleared for use. According to team member Michael Springer, many genetically modified strains of similar bacteria have been used in the agricultural industry since the 1960s.