Handheld DNA sequencing devices are “well suited to environmental monitoring during food production” according to a new study.

The study, ‘Microbiome-based environmental monitoring of a dairy processing facility highlights the challenges associated with low microbial-load samples’ by researchers from Teagasc and APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre, is the first to test handheld DNA sequencers as a routine microbial monitoring solution for food production facilities.

According to the report, identifying the microbes present in food is important – after all, “they can cause food spoilage and disease, so routine checks on the microbial life in food production facilities is a necessity”.

However, current techniques to achieve this, while tried and tested, have some limitations.

DNA sequencing offers an alternative

“Microbiology testing in the food chain has, and continues to, rely on older, classical microbiology testing such as the use of agar and petri dishes,” explained the study’s senior author, Professor Paul Cotter.

“This is a time-consuming approach and only microorganisms that are being specifically tested for are identified.”

According to Teagasc, DNA sequencing offers an alternative – “instead of culturing bacterial samples in petri dishes, it can rapidly analyse bacterial DNA and identify the species in a sample”.

The catch? Conventional DNA sequencing involves expensive lab-based equipment and only highly trained lab technicians can perform the procedure and analyse the results.

“This isn’t a good fit for routine microbial surveillance in busy food production facilities. A newer technology offers rapid DNA sequencing with an easy-to-use handheld device, but no one had tested its potential in food production – until now.”

Professor Cotter and colleagues, led by Dr. Aoife McHugh, set out to investigate how such portable sequencing technology would compare with lab-based sequencing, using swab samples from a working dairy facility.

Minor hurdle

“The handheld device proved to be similar to the larger lab-based sequencing system in terms of the number of bacterial species it could identify in the samples, suggesting it has potential as a routine monitoring device in food production,” according to the researchers.

However, the small device requires a minimum amount of DNA before it can function correctly.

In the “well-cleaned” dairy facility, there weren’t enough bacteria in many of the samples, so researchers “had to perform an extra step to amplify the bacterial DNA before there was enough to analyse”.

However, this is a “minor hurdle” and further technological developments “may help to overcome it”.

‘Very rapid impact on everyday life’

“As microbiologists, the use of DNA sequencing has revolutionised our understanding of fascinating microbial communities at the bottom of oceans, the tops of icebergs and a huge range of other environments,” Professor Cotter continued.

While such studies have the potential to impact on our lives in the longer term, the use of these technologies to enhance food quality and safety can have a very rapid impact on everyday life.

“This study represents a key step towards a day when non-experts can use DNA sequencing tools to carry out microbiology testing in the food chain.”