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Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

A Reason To Hope For Spooked Sprout Fans

A new invention may eventually take the gamble out of consuming raw veggies.

e. coli bacteria

Photo: Mattosaurus (Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, your phone won't be able to produce electron microscope images like this one. But at least you'll be noshing sprouts carefree.

Fear Of The Unknown

For those who love sprouts but aren’t too keen on contracting E. coli, a cheap and convenient way to assay food safety would be most welcome.

While it’ll probably be awhile before average consumers can field-test their Jimmy John’s order and know for sure it isn’t going to make them sick, an invention just announced by researchers at UCLA marks an important step in the right direction.

What It Is And How It Works

Their “florescent imaging and sensing platform” is something straight from Q’s lab or Batman’s utility belt.

Put simply, what the scientists have come up with is a lightweight and inexpensive piece of equipment that allows E. coli to be reliably detected with a smart phone camera.

The hardware — an attachment that slips over top of a mobile device — uses antibodies and special nanoparticles called “quantum dots” to label pieces of the bacteria.

Ultra-violet LEDs then cause the dots to emit visible light, which is captured by the camera and translated into a positive or negative result by a program installed on the phone.

It’s like having your own pocket-sized royal food taster.

Broader Potential

In theory, detection need not be limited to E. coli. Substituting in other types of antibodies should enable the gizmo to test food and water for other dangerous bugs such as Salmonella and Listeria as well.

Also, because so much of the world now has access to cell phone technology, the benefits of this innovation coming to market will be enjoyed globally.

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Ben Alford

Ben Alford works in Indiana Public Media's online dimension and holds an M.A. from Indiana University Bloomington's History and Philosophy of Science department. When not vegetating in front of a computer screen or geeking out over a good book, he can found outside exploring.

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