Researchers Use Genome Sequencing to Reduce Food Poisoning

Health Canada labs are using genomics, a cutting-edge field in biology, to study why foodborne germs make us sick.

Dr. Kelly Weedmark and her highly skilled research team are using the latest genomics technologies to unravel the complexity of germs. This important research is used to shape food safety recommendations that protect Canadians from foodborne illnesses, and identify effective treatments to deal with bacteria that are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

How genomics research is contributing to food safety

Genomics research uses cutting-edge technologies to analyze different bacteria, viruses and parasites. It involves mapping out the DNA sequence of disease-causing germs to analyse their unique structure and function.

“We know that certain bacteria will make you sick, but we don’t always know why until we take a closer look. For example, although most types of E. coli bacteria are usually harmless, others can make you sick. Some cause diarrhea, while others can cause serious illnesses. To find out why, we break open the bacteria and sequence pieces of their DNA. We then put the genome together, sort of like a puzzle,” explains Dr. Weedmark, Manager of the Genomics Lab at Health Canada’s Bureau of Microbial Hazards.

Once Dr. Weedmark and her team determine which parts of a germ make a person sick, they share their research results with others. This valuable information is primarily used to inform food safety recommendations developed by Health Canada in collaboration with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Public Health Agency of Canada.

How does analyzing germs contribute to food safety?

Analyzing germs plays an important role in food safety practices by shaping public health guidance on how to clean, separate, cook and chill foods safely.

“When we look at the DNA of pathogens, we start to understand them better. We can determine whether a food needs to be cooked at a higher temperature before it can be safe to eat or whether canned food needs to be kept in more acidic liquid. This leads to better food safety recommendations for consumers and for industry,” says Dr. Weedmark.

How does understanding bacteria improve the way we treat food poisoning?

Over time, bacteria found in our foods can mutate making it more resistant to front line treatments like antibiotics. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has made it more challenging for the medical community to treat food poisoning symptoms. The reason being that it now takes less bacteria to make a person sick compared to previous forms of bacteria.

Thanks to advances in genomics research, the medical community can test samples of bacteria to learn if it is resistant to antibiotics or not. This ensures health practitioners know which antibiotics are effective in treating a range of foodborne illnesses.

Why is genomics research innovation an important tool for food safety?

DNA testing and whole genome sequencing have become important tools to help protect seniors, children, pregnant women and those with weak immune systems.

Health Canada labs will continue to advance innovations in food safety and therapeutic treatments to protect Canadians from food borne illnesses through ongoing genomics research while also contributing to our understanding of appropriate prescribing of antibiotics to halt the spread of AMR.