A group of Finnish scientists has demonstrated that phage could be used to prevent food poisoning by killing dangerous foodborne pathogens like Yersinia enterocolitica.

Researchers at the University of Helsinki believe that bacteria-killing viruses called phage could be more than just an alternative to antibiotics and a solution to the growing antibiotic resistance crisis. A study, published in the Journal of Food Microbiology, explains how phages help the food industry to get rid of foodborne pathogens and prevent food poisoning.

These tiny viruses called bacteriophages, or phages for short, infect and kill bacteria, which could be used to prevent the spread of nasty infections. Each phage is able to infect a small number of bacterial strains, which makes them highly precise weapons.

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The study focused on eradicating Yersinia enterocolitica, which causes yersiniosis. The illness is characterized by typical symptoms of food poisoning like abdominal pain and diarrhea. The disease tends to be transmitted via undercooked pork, milk, or contaminated kitchenware.

Out of four candidates, the researchers found a phage called fHe-Yen9-01 to be the most effective. The virus was taken forward and its capacity to decontaminate food and kitchenware was investigated. Groceries, including pork and milk, were inoculated with Yersinia then treated with the phage and monitored for three days.

phage-prevent-food-poisoning

The life cycle of a bacteriophage, showing how it kills bacteria.

The group observed that the phage inhibited bacterial growth in food and grew in number even when kept in the refrigerator. The same results were also seen when the phage was used to clean contaminated kitchen utensils.

Mikael Skurnik, a professor at the University of Helsinki, is already considering the future applications of the technology: “In Finland, there is no urgent need to prevent Yersinia infections, but our study can serve as a model for the prevention of other, more serious foodborne infections… One option is a phage mixture effective against several bacteria, such as the Salmonella and Campylobacter species.”

Phages have shown their potential against infections as a group at the University of Leicester demonstrated by the treatment of Clostridium difficile infections. In addition, Eligo Bioscience has based its CRISPR nanobots to treat the microbiome on the tiny viruses. In the field of food hygiene, Novolyze has developed ready-to-use kits to prevent food poisoning.

A big advantage of using viruses is that they are capable of mutating their genome, which will allow them to respond to resistant bacterial strains. This approach could help us to fight back against antibiotic resistance with a technique that could be too quick, even for bacteria.


Images – nobeastsofierce / shutterstock.com; Designua / shutterstock.com

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