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Firefly technology sheds light on food safety

19 March 2012

Food contamination can now be detected easily by a new device based on the chemical which lights up fireflies.

The Bioluminescent Assay in Real-Time (BART), jointly invented by Professor Jim Murray of Cardiff University and Dr. Laurence Tisi of Lumora, allows users to test rapidly and simply for food poisoning bacteria. Professor Murray and his partners at technology company Lumora Ltd hope to develop the system to test for other diseases, including HIV-AIDS.

The BART system detects specific DNA sequences by producing a light signal, using a version of the enzyme luciferase, which also produces light in fireflies. The breakthrough allows for quick and easy molecular testing which previously required complex laboratory hardware.

Professor Murray and Dr Tisi have just been selected as Finalists for the "Innovator of the Year" award run by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

The first BART system has been created for food safety testing. Samples are placed inside a remarkably simple device, which can then test for the DNA of common food pathogens. If present, the bacteria trigger the luciferase to produce light. The device can produce results in ten minutes to an hour, depending on the number of organisms being tested for.

Professor Murray, of the University’s School of Biosciences, said: "The food industry has been looking for dependable, fast and convenient microbiological testing for a long time. Our system will allow workers to test a wide variety of foods in a simple system which uses the most sensitive molecular technology. Portable versions of the device mean that it’s now even possible to test farm animals in the food chain.

"We now want to apply BART technology to a range of other diseases. The most obvious and most pressing need is HIV-AIDS. Patients need to be continuously tested for their viral loads so that their treatment dosage can be adjusted. At the moment, this requires laboratory facilities which are in short supply in Africa. We hope to create a device which can be used easily in those countries."

Lumora is a spin-out company based on Professor Murray’s research which now employs 13 people in Cambridgeshire.

The results of the BBSRC Innovator of the Year Award will be announced on Wednesday, March 28.

Notes to editor:

Cardiff University

Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, University President Professor Sir Martin Evans. Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Three major new Research Institutes, offering radical new approaches to neurosciences and mental health, cancer stem cells and sustainable places were announced by the University in 2010.

Further information:

Stephen Rouse,

Public Relations Office,

Cardiff University.

029 2087 5596