If you thought food poisoning was just a matter of the occasional stomach upset from a dodgy shrimp or two, the CDC has some unsettling numbers for you: foodborne bacteria is responsible for at least 48 million cases of illness, more than 130,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone. And those numbers aren't going down. But wait: a new fighter has entered the ring! Say hello to the bacteriophage, a small-but-mighty bacteria-busting virus that can wipe out entire colonies of harmful pathogens—and that is starting to be sprayed on packages of cold cuts near you. While most Americans haven’t heard of phages (as they’re commonly called), they’ve been saving lives in the former Soviet Union for decades now. So why has it taken so long for the U.S. to get on board? How do these teeny-tiny bacteria fighters work, and what’s their connection to Elizabeth Taylor and chlorinated chicken? Should we—and could we—get our food systems on the phage train?
Ben Wolfe urged us to Google Image Search lambda phage, and we were not disappointed! "They kind of look like a lunar lander coming down onto the surface of a bacterial cell," Ben told us. "It's really beautiful."
Alexander Sulakvelidze is the president and CEO of Intralytix, a biotech company that was the first in the U.S. to commercialize phage products for food use. Sulakvelidze, who goes by Sandro, is an internationally-recognized expert on phage technology and infectious disease epidemiology, with several patents and publications to his name.
Phages are grown in fermentation tanks at Intralytix. (Photo courtesy Intralytix.)
Ben Wolfe and the Wolfe Lab
You’ve heard Ben in several of our episodes before, from Say Cheese! to Kombucha Culture—we like to say he's our in-house microbiologist! When he’s not recording interviews for Gastropod, Ben is an associate professor of biology and head of the Wolfe Lab at Tufts University, where he studies the ecology and evolution of microbial communities in food systems.
Bill Marler and Marler Clark
Bill Marler is a nationally-recognized food poisoning attorney and food safety advocate—his first major food safety case involved the victims of the now-infamous 1993 E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box. Since then, he’s represented thousands of victims of foodborne illness and prompted major changes in food safety standards. Bill founded Food Safety News, an industry newsletter, in 2009.
Darin Detwiler is an assistant professor of food policy and assistant dean at Northeastern University, with more than 25 years of experience shaping food policy. Darin’s career in food safety began after the tragic death of his toddler during the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak. He is author of Food Safety: Past, Present, and Predictions.
Divya Jaroni is a professor in the department of animal and food sciences at Oklahoma State University, where she studies food microbiology and food pathogens, with a particular focus on E. coli and salmonella. You can read her recent paper testing the efficacy of phages against E. coli in leafy greens here.
This is the article about human phage therapy that Nicky wrote for The New Yorker, which led her to Sandro's groundbreaking work using phages for food safety.
The image used in the audio player for this episode is a transmission electron micrograph showing multiple bacteriophages attached to a bacterial cell wall; the magnification is approximately 200,000. The author is Dr. Graham Beards, and it is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.