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Building biosensors to keep the food supply safe

Daniel Jenkins
Daniel Jenkins, an associate professor of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering, is taking aim at Salmonella and other pathogens

Salmonella enterica accounts for nearly half the cases of food-borne illness worldwide. The bacterium causes hundreds of deaths and thousands of hospitalizations in the United States and racks up billions in medical costs and lost wages each year. Even agricultural producers who aren’t responsible for the outbreaks take an economic hit when fearful consumers stop buying their goods.

That’s why the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded Daniel Jenkins a $500,000 grant to improve the detection of harmful bacteria in plants.

Jenkins, an associate professor of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering at UH Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR), takes aim at Salmonella and other pathogens with Smart-DART, an inexpensive and simple-to-use battery-powered hand-held platform for real-time, gene-specific detection of disease-causing organisms. He and students-turned-partners Ryo Kubota and Scott Shibata won top honors at the 2010 UH Shidler College Business Plan Competition. Additional startup funding came with the NASA Johnson Space Center Best Earth/Space Life Science Innovation award in the 2011 Rice University Business Plan Competition and a USDA Small Business Innovation Research grant. Their startup firm, Diagenetix, Inc., is licensed by UH to commercialize the technology — an example of the leap from innovative university research to commercial marketplace.

Back at Mānoa, Jenkins and his new students continue to work on novel assays to detect trace amounts of other pathogens, physical and biological technologies to improve the platform, and Web-based interfaces for smart phones and other portable computing technologies. For example, incorporating data from GPS and internal sensors allows him to map delivery of herbicides to invasive plants via projectiles (see page 7). Similar geospatial information can be combined with quantitative pathogen analysis to generate spore density maps to help growers understand and manage disease risk. Additional applications are numerous, from monitoring environmental changes to screening quarantined materials for exotic organisms to rapid detection of infectious disease following natural disasters. Jenkins holds five patents related to molecular instrumentation. A sixth is for a decidedly different technology—an automatic flush trigger for toilet-trained cats. “My mom is a veterinarian, so growing up we always had a variety of pets (dogs, cats, the odd duck, and the small menagerie of animals at my parents’ old farm). Since graduate school, I’ve consistently had street cats make the decision to move in with me.”

A second-generation agricultural engineer (his father worked for USAID), Jenkins studied at Cornell University and the University of California, Davis. “My professors and advisors were all very altruistic, visionary people who had a passion for solving really critical problems about how to feed people. Having seen a lot of hunger and poverty first hand I really looked up to them,” he says.

Source:  This research highlight is part of the inaugural issue of “CTAHR IN FOCUS: Highlights of recent impacts in teaching, research, and extension” (access the full document here). Learn more about CTAHR on their website: http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/