University of Minnesota
This project is focused on developing a platform technology for detecting hundreds of potential toxins and adulterants in foods, including newly emerging threats to the food supply. The technology relies on the release of ammonia and is based on the action of specific enzymes acting on the toxin of interest. The platform technology was validated with the development of a specific test kit dedicated to detecting melamine in milk and other products to deal with the emergence of melamine adulteration of milk that sickened 400,000 children in China (sold as the MaxSignal Melamine kit by BIOO Scientific). We have identified enzymes that can be used to detect dozens of other chemicals and these are described in the Biocatalysis/Biodegradation Database, that was developed at the University and is now available internationally on a server in Zurich. The research has focused on developing detection methods for two general classes of chemicals that could be sourced by those seeking to adulterate foods; specifically, (1) toxic extracts from readily available plants and (2) industrial chemicals that might be considered inocuous but can be used with deadly consequences. The former are exemplified by the Lily of the Valley, castor plant and the jequirity plant that contain the highly toxic substances azetidine-2-carboxylate, ricin and abrin, respectively. In these cases, we developed methods to detect the toxin itself or a surrogate that is always present with the toxin but is absent in normal foods. The second general class of chemicals targeted were very readily available chemicals that could be used as food adulterants, such cyanuric acid (used in swimming pools and highly toxic when mixed with melamine), compounds such as acrylamide that are widely used industrially, and isobutylene diurea (IBDU) a compound brought to our attention by the Center for Food Protection and Defense as a chemical of concern. We developed general methods for detecting these compounds, filed an invention disclosure with the University's Office of Technology Commercialization, spoke with numerous companies to explore commercial opportunities, and published multiple papers. The research provided a platform technology to develop rapid test kits for these and hundreds of other chemicals that might emerge as threats in a food adulteration crisis.
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