Portable Sensor Technology Aims to Quickly Detect Foodborne Contaminants Outside the Lab

AMHERST — An international team led by a UMass Amherst food and environmental virologist has received a $750,000 USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) partnership grant to develop and test portable, rapid biosensors capable of detecting noroviruses and mycotoxins in foods and agricultural

products. It is among the first partnership grants awarded with an international partner by the USDA.

Noroviruses are the leading cause of foodborne illness globally, and are highly contagious, causing pandemics every few years, said lead investigator Matthew Moore, assistant professor of food science. Moore will work with UMass Amherst food science colleague John Gibbons, a fungi expert, and food science Ph.D. candidate Sloane Stoufer in the Moore Lab. The UMass team will collaborate with senior lecturer and principal investigator Marloes Peeters and postdoctoral research associate Jake McClements at Newcastle University’s School of Engineering in England.

“People can get really sick from foods that contain viruses and toxins,” said Moore. “We need a way to quickly and easily find out if a food contains these contaminants in a cheap but effective way — without the need to go back to a separate lab to do the testing.”

Mycotoxins are toxic substances produced by fungi that can grow in warm and humid conditions on crops and food, in particular in many grains, produce, nuts, seeds and spices. They represent a growing threat to public health in the face of climate change trends and increased consumption of plant-based foods, Moore said. 

“One of the interesting things about mycotoxins as a foodborne contaminant is that they’re often not very acute, so you’re less likely to notice it,” Moore said. “Oftentimes, the damage they do is more chronic, and they will mess with the kidneys and liver especially and can promote cancer.”

That makes early detection all the more important. “With this technology we’re trying to create a cheap, highly durable, and potentially reusable sensor that can detect these contaminants,” Moore says.The UMass Amherst food scientists got together with engineers at Newcastle University to seek a rare international partnership grant from the USDA’s NIFA. The British engineers are world leaders in electrochemical sensing techniques based on generating molecularly imprinted polymer nanoparticles (nanoMIPs). 

“The grant enables an unprecedented international exchange,” Moore says. The UMass team will learn more about the application of nanoMIPs when they visit the Peeters Lab at Newcastle, and the UK team will be hosted by Moore’s Applied and Environmental Virology Lab to gain knowledge about virological, microbiological and food science techniques.

“This nanoMIP-based sensing technology has numerous advantages,” he said. “It is very stable in intense conditions, and very portable. It is also quite inexpensive, a very important consideration in testing for foods.”