More than 78 million cases of illness caused by microbiological infection of foods are reported per year from all over the world and the economic damage to deal with them is estimated at about US $ 10 billion besides loss of several valuable lives which could have been saved if timely detection measures were available. Many strains of Salmonella, Clostridium, Bacillus, E.coli and Listeria are the major culprits responsible for these havoc. The manifested symptoms can be diarrhea of varying severity, GI discomforts, vomiting, stomach flu, induced paralysis, etc, some time even leading to fatality. One of the practical constraints is the time lag between occurrence of the symptoms after food consumption and confirmation of food poisoning as the universally accepted diagnostic methods are time consuming, requiring at least 48 hours time in the Laboratory. Of course there are DNA based and anti-body based methods which are relatively quick but they can only identify specific bacteria but cannot indicate the presence of toxicity or anticipate the potential for causing serious harm to the consumers.
The encouraging work from a group of microbiologists from USA in identifying certain chromatophore or pigment bearing cells called erythrophores as potential detectors of microbial toxins gives hope that many lives can be saved by early confirmation of infections in suspected foods and prompt treatment. Siamese fighting fish are known to carry these cells which can be seen through their transparent body. In response to stimulation by the presence of toxic chemicals in the suspected foods, the pigmented cells move in a characteristic pattern specific to different chemical moieties. These patterns can be seen under low power microscopes and can even be quantified numerically to describe the intensity of the situation. If the claims are true the results can be made available in minutes, saving considerable time for initiating preventive measures.
As the method is still under development, it could take time to evolve affordable and reliable portable kits that can be used under field conditions. Such kits as and when they are ready can serve admirably the interests processors, distributors, retailers and even consumers. It is a laudable effort by the scientists with global relevance and WHO must pitch in to take it forward to its logical conclusion by organized manufacture of the proven kits for supply to highly vulnerable countries in Asia, Africa and South America.