Germ detectives soon will have a powerful new tool for their investigations into food-borne illnesses. Over the next five years, scientists plan to build a genomic database of 100,000 microorganisms to aid in diagnosis of food-borne sickness and to help track pathogens to their source. The University of California will direct the project in collaboration with the FDA, Agilent Technologies, USDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

UC-Davis and the FDA issued news releases last week announcing the collaborative project.

The database will contain the genomes of important food-borne pathogens including Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli, as well as the most common foodborne and waterborne viruses that sicken people and animals. The group plans to allow free public access to the database, which will help scientists and public-health officials speed up the process of identifying pathogens and tracing their source.

According to the FDA, open access to the database will allow researchers to develop tests that can identify the type of bacteria in a sample within a matter of days or hours, compared with about a week between diagnosis and genetic analysis today.

The wealth of genomic information also could potentially lead to new measures of prevention and control of food-borne pathogens.

The database will “revolutionize our basic understanding of these disease-causing microorganisms,” says Harris Lewin, vice chancellor for research at U.C.-Davis.

In addition to identifying the pathogens responsible for food-borne illnesses, food-safety officials need to be able to determine which food or ingredient is contaminated and where it came from, which FDA notes can be a challenge, especially when multi-ingredient foods are involved or the same ingredient is sourced from multiple suppliers. Scientists have in the past used genetic testing to trace pathogens in a food-borne disease outbreak to their source by verifying similar genomic traits in pathogens from, for example, a patient and a processing plant, but the process is fairly slow.

According to the FDA, using the genetic information in the database as part of an overall surveillance and outbreak investigation system, in combination with geographic information about the pathogens, will help public health officials more quickly pinpoint the source of contamination responsible for a food-borne outbreak.

Read more from the FDA and from UC-Davis.