A collaboration between Mars Inc. and IBM will merge the skills of both companies to investigate the genetic fingerprints of bacteria, fungi, or viruses that are impacting the safety of the global food supply. This collaboration, called the Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain, was announced in January.
The collaboration, which will include partners from other companies and from academia, will use advances in genomics to sequence the DNA and RNA of food samples, helping to understand how contamination begins. The goals of the metagenomics research are to categorize and understand microorganisms and the factors that influence their activity in a normal, safe factory environment. Investigators involved in the consortium will study how the microorganisms proliferate and interact in different environments, such as on countertops and in raw materials. Applications of the research will eventually extend throughout the entire food supply chain, from the transport system to processing facilities and distribution channels, restaurants, and farmers. By applying the science of genomics with analytics techniques, the consortium hopes to identify methods that could curtail foodborne illness and risks in food management.
As collaborators, scientists at Mars Inc. will gather the first data samples and IBM’s genomics, healthcare, and analytics experts will provide the large-scale computational and data system needed for this type of research. Dave Crean, the vice president of corporate research and development at Mars Inc., says in a recent interview in IBM’s Dispatches from a Smarter Planet that the project aims to “understand all of the relationships among all the life forms in a factory environment and learn the conditions that enable pathogens to thrive.”
“We are thinking that maybe the factory has a microbiome just like your body has a microbiome. If we can understand the relationships, we can potentially start to influence the microbiome by shifting the conditions in the factory,” Crean says.
This is not the first collaboration related to genomics between Mars Inc. and IBM. In 2008, the two companies collaborated with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to sequence and analyze the cacao genome. The aim of that project was to create healthier and more sustainable cocoa crops that would be more disease resistant and would produce higher yields. The preliminary findings of the cacao genome were announced in 2010, three years ahead of schedule. Information about the cacao genome is now being tested in field research that makes use of the data, according to the USDA-ARS.
Holliman is a veteran journalist with extensive experience covering a variety of industries. Reach her at [email protected].