Chances are you’ve heard of mapping genes to diagnose rare diseases, predict your risk for cancer and tell your ancestry. But to uncover food poisonings?
The nation’s disease detectives are beginning a program to try to outsmart outbreaks by routinely decoding the DNA of potentially deadly bacteria and viruses.
The initial target are listeria bacteria, which are the third-leading cause of death by food poisoning and are especially dangerous to pregnant women. Already, the government credits the technology with helping to solve a listeria outbreak that killed one person in California and sickened seven in Maryland.
“This really is a new way to find and fight infections,” said Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “One way to think of it is, is it identifying a suspect by a lineup or by a fingerprint?”
Whole genome sequencing, or mapping all of an organism’s DNA, has become a staple of medical research. But in public health, it has been used more selectively, to investigate particularly vexing outbreaks or emerging pathogens, such as a worrisome new strain of bird flu.
For day-to-day outbreak detection, officials rely instead on decades-old tests that use pieces of DNA and are not as precise.
Now, with genome sequencing becoming faster and cheaper, the CDC is armed with $30 million from Congress to broaden the use of the technique with a program called advanced molecular detection. The hope is to more rapidly solve outbreaks — food-borne and other types — and maybe prevent infections, too, by better understanding how they spread.
“Frankly, in public health, we have some catching up to do,” said the CDC’s Christopher Braden, an infectious-diseases doctor and epidemiologist who is helping to lead the work.
As a first step, federal and state officials are rapidly decoding the DNA of all the listeria infections diagnosed in the United States this year, along with samples found in tainted foods or factories.
This is the first time the technology has been used for routine disease surveillance, looking for people with matching strains who may have become sick from the same source.
If this pilot project works, the CDC says, it sets the stage eventually to overhaul how public health laboratories around the country keep watch on food safety and to use the technology more routinely against other outbreaks.
“Genome sequencing really is the ultimate DNA fingerprint,” said George Washington University microbiologist Lance Price, who uses the technique to study the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and says the CDC’s move is long overdue.