Spraying your meal with viruses makes it safer – New Scientist

A spray containing viruses that cleans your food: it sounds contradictory. Yet this is exactly what scientists in the United States have developed.

Viruses that kill bacteria can cause disease E coliload in food. Such viruses, called bacteriophages or phages for short, reduce the amount of bacteria present E colibacteria by a factor of one million. This reduces the risk of food poisoning. Biomedical technologist Lei Tian and his colleagues discovered this at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.

For their research, they first made a gel. That gel consisted entirely of phages that stuck to each other. The researchers then tested the gel’s bactericidal effect in two ways, each time they filled petri dishes with it E coli used as sacrifices. In the first experiment, they put ‘patches’ of the gel in the dishes, in the middle E coli. In the second experiment, Tian and his team sprayed the bowls with an aerosol phage spray.

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Bacteria are a major cause of food poisoning. Some bacteria secrete toxins that make us sick. As a result, eating improperly prepared food can be dangerous. Tian’s phages could be a solution to stop the bacteria.

In the kitchen

Biomedical technologist Zeinab Hosseinidoust, who was involved in the research, sees it as a suitable means of making food safer for consumption. “The gel with phages can, for example, be added directly to fresh vegetables and dairy products,” she says. “And it even works in packages of raw steak.”

Hosseinidoust is not only positive about the effectiveness, but also about the safety of the subjects themselves. “Our gels are completely biodegradable,” she says. Furthermore, she reassures that phages are harmless to humans. ‘If you consume the phages, the body is not affected. The subjects specific to this E colivariant, just leave the bacteria that naturally live in your gut alone.’ But the team only has the effect of the spray on one E colivariant tested. What the phages do with other variants that live in our human gut is therefore unclear.

Hosseinidoust goes one step further. ‘Suppose you are a dangerous one E colistrain, the phages can even render the bacteria in your gut harmless.’

Hosseinidoust believes that fager deserves a place in the entire food production chain. ‘You can use these subjects on farms, in the household and even in businesses that cook food.’ The latter is not new: the use of phages has already been approved in the American food industry. But a household remedy with phages would be a new step. In our kitchen, the workers were not only able to keep the food itself free of contamination, but also worktops and kitchen utensils.

Risk of food poisoning

But Mariel Pikkemaat, microbiologist at the food safety research group at Wageningen University, sees no point in the professional remedy. “I wonder if the average Dutch person, who has never knowingly experienced a foodborne infection, feels any need to use such a preventive measure,” she says.

“It probably doesn’t make much sense: Most products are made directly from the packaging. This means that the bacteriophage does not have time to do its job. I could only imagine it if you want to keep an opened package of meat or fish products in the fridge for a few more days,’ says Pikkemaat.

She cites another argument for being cautious about these germ-killing phages in the food industry. ‘They can mask a lack of hygiene in the production facilities. Therefore, subjects are still not allowed in Europe, unlike in countries outside Europe.’


Still, Tian and his team’s gel is not wasted. The remedy can be useful not only in the kitchen, but also in hospitals. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is a problem there, making it difficult to kill the pathogens. A specific agent such as the phage spray could mean a new generation of drugs with a low risk of resistance.

“Because phages have a specific target, they don’t cause collateral damage,” says Hosseinidoust. “Patients who have been hospitalized are already very vulnerable and are dependent on their own good bacteria to recover. Fager is a very suitable medicine for them.’

Pikkemate agrees. “It is a pity that phages are not used more effectively as an alternative to antibiotics in medicine. They are a much more sustainable solution than developing new antibiotics again.’

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