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Swiss startup leads in food safety with bacteriophage technology

by Tunae


Bacteria pose significant challenges to the food industry, from contaminating crops and livestock to jeopardizing ready-to-eat foods. To address these concerns, a Swiss startup, NEMIS Technologies AG, is pioneering a new approach to bacterial detection: bacteriophages, or simply phages — viruses that infect and kill select bacteria. Numerous studies have demonstrated the potential of phages to control and eradicate pathogenic bacteria throughout the food production chain.

In a recent interview with Food Safety News, Łukasz Richter, the product manager at NEMIS Technologies AG, highlighted the bacteriophages technologies developed by NEMIS.

“Phages — they’re viruses — specialized viruses that infect and kill only bacteria and bacteria alone,” Richter explained.

Discovered in 1917 by Félix d’Hérelle, phages initially held promise as a solution to bacterial infections before the advent of antibiotics. However, with the rise of antibiotics, bacteriophages took a backseat, finding prominence primarily in the former Soviet Union during the Cold War era.

Applications in Food Safety and Agriculture
With the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, there’s renewed interest in bacteriophages. This resurgence — dubbed the Renaissance of Bacteriophages — extends to food safety. Richter emphasizes the advantages of bacteriophages, citing their safety for human consumption, ecological benefits, and defined range of bacterial targets.

Moreover, phages offer a potential solution to mitigate losses caused by bacterial diseases in livestock and crops. Antibiotics, traditionally used to control infections, have led to the spread of antimicrobial resistance. However, studies have shown that phages can effectively combat bacterial infections in animals. For instance, phages isolated from dairy farm sewage demonstrated efficacy comparable to antibiotics in treating mastitis in cows caused by E. coli. O157:H7. Similarly, phages have shown promise in controlling pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 in other animals.

In addition to preventing and treating animal and plant diseases, phages play a crucial role in detecting and inhibiting the growth of foodborne pathogens during food processing. Researchers have engineered reporter phages for detecting pathogens like Listeria monocytogenes in contaminated food items such as milk, cold cuts, and lettuce. Phage solutions can also be applied to food surfaces to eliminate pathogens like Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes, with various commercial products already available.

The benefits of phage biocontrol include their defined host range, ensuring targeted action against pathogens while sparing beneficial bacteria. Moreover, phages replicate, amplifying their efficacy in environments where conventional disinfectants may struggle to reach. Phages also offer a safe alternative to hazardous chemicals, preserving food properties and taste.

Collaborations with academic institutions, including the University of Wigan in the Netherlands and ETH Zurich, a public research institute, have been instrumental in developing and refining NEMIS’s bacteriophage technology. Professors Martin Luner and Lars Wisler, experts in bacteriophages and food safety, have lent their expertise to further advance NEMIS’s initiatives.

NEMIS Technologies has leveraged bacteriophages to tackle challenges in food safety, particularly in pathogen detection. Richter explains their innovative use of bacteriophages in enrichment broths to enhance selectivity. By precisely targeting problematic bacteria, NEMIS ensures accurate detection without interference from other microflora.

The innovative approach of NEMIS Technologies AG integrates bacteriophage technology to enhance the detection of pathogens like Listeria monocytogenes. This technology also ensures greater accuracy, safeguarding public health and preventing foodborne illness outbreaks.

Future outlook and challenges
Despite their potential, phages have limitations. Their defined host range may not cover all strains of a bacterium, and bacterial resistance to phages remains a concern. However, ongoing research aims to address these challenges, including developing phage mixtures and co-evolution experiments.

NEMIS Technologies AG aims to expand its platform technology to encompass detection methods for additional pathogens, further enhancing food safety practices worldwide. By leveraging the power of bacteriophage technology and interdisciplinary collaboration, NEMIS is driving meaningful advancements in food safety, safeguarding public health, and ensuring a more secure food supply chain for future generations.


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