Faster E. coli detection — right in the packing plant

This technology, known as a PCR slide, could help detect E. coli in a meat-packing plant in under an hour.

It’s the size of a postage stamp, but this little piece of technology could enable meat-packing plant workers to test samples for E. coli right on site.

A University of Alberta project team is optimistic their PCR (polymerase chain reaction) technology could be used in packing plants. The technology was initially focused on medical applications, but will be now used in the livestock sector to detect E. coli in meat, said Linda Pilarski, professor in the department of oncology at the University of Alberta and team project lead.

The technology, known as cassette PCR, sits inside a “gel cycler” — a test box the size of a shoebox. The technology can test multiple samples and look for various strains of E. coli at the same time, which isn’t possible using current technology. The device, which uses molecular testing, can discover whether specific genetic material is present and can give results within an hour, unlike current tests which take between 12 and 24 hours.

“Because it’s so specific, we have been able to distinguish between all the strains of E. coli,” said Pilarski. “We can distinguish them at a molecular level using our device. What we plan to do is create a panel of markers to determine how much E. coli is there and how much it is, and we can do all that within an hour for each sample collected.”

The device can analyze raw samples so any staff member in a meat plant could do the test. All the worker has to do is add a sample to the cassette using an eyedropper and put the test in the gel cycler.

The team knows the technology works and is reliable in testing E. coli, but they just need to refine it and make it easier for a meat plant worker to use.

“It is necessary to find a very low number of cells in a very large amount of sample,” said Michael Ganzle. “There is the need to concentrate and that’s one of the challenges of the project. Can we take 100 grams of meat and get it into the small PCR tube without losing any of the relevant DNA?”

Once the technology is fine tuned, the team will be looking for someone to license the technology and make it commercially available and regulatory approved.

Other members include Dr. Lynn McMullen, a food microbiologist and researcher with the U of A’s faculty of agriculture, life and environmental sciences (ALES) and Michael Ganzle, an E. coli specialist and professor also with ALES. Faculty of science researcher, Patrick Pilarski will develop the artificial intelligence needed and Xianqin Yang from Agriculture Canada will provide expertise on the science of meat packing.

The project is funded by Alberta Innovates Health Solutions, Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions, the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, Genome Canada and the Alberta Innovates Centre for Machine Learning.

About the author


Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for the Glacier FarmMedia publication, the Alberta Farmer Express, since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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