Next for GMOs: Reducing E. Coli on Food

For centuries, farmers have selectively bred crops with various traits: disease resistance, size, taste, etc. Thanks to genetic engineering, scientists are now working on ways to modify different crops so they require less water, fewer pesticides, resist browning, and contain additional nutrients. Now, scientists are using genetic engineering to create plants that produce proteins that can be extracted and applied to contaminated meat and produce to kill one of the most common causes of food-borne illness: E. coli bacteria.

Scientists with two German biotech companies have engineered tobacco, leafy beets, chicory, spinach, and lettuce to produce these proteins, known as colicins. They’ve found that these colicins are 50 times more active against the E. coli bacteria than antibiotics. The findings were published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In food, E. Coli bacteria is most commonly found in contaminated beef and pork, but contamination is becoming more and more common in organic produce. Rather than treating crops with traditional chemical fertilizers, organic farmers typically use animal manure, which can carry E. coli.

Contaminated food poses a significant danger to public health. In the United States alone, there are nearly 300,000 E. coli infections every year. This new breakthrough using colicins from genetically engineered plants could be a more effective and economically preferable way to decontaminate meat.

Now the researchers are seeking approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to be considered “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). This step could take a long time—before food additives are approved, researchers must present extensive toxicological and effectiveness data. In the meantime researchers are moving to tackle another bacteria source of food-borne illness: salmonella.

For more facts about GMOs, view our primer “5 Things to Know about GMOs.”