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IBM, Mars Collaborate on Genomics to Improve Food Safety

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – IBM and Mars have established the Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain in order to leverage genomic advances to improve food safety, they announced on Thursday. 

The consortium will conduct what IBM and Mars said will be the largest-ever metagenomics study to categorize and understand the role that microorganisms play in a "normal, safe factory environment." The work may be extended to other parts of the food supply chain, resulting in new information about how microorganisms "interact within a factory ecology." 

Initially, researchers will delve into the genetic fingerprints of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other living organisms and how they survive and proliferate in different environments, such as countertops, factories, and raw materials. Insights could be used to investigate bacterial interactions, leading to new perspectives in supply chain food safety management, the partners said. 

In the first stages, the consortium will focus on select raw materials and factory environments. Eventually, it will explore the entire food supply chain and include applications for farmers. The first data samples will be gathered from Mars-owned production facilities, and IBM researchers will use the company's Accelerated Discovery THINKLab — a collaborative research environment — for the large-scale computational and data requirements of the initiative.

The data will be presented in a manner to enable the adoption of testing techniques, IBM and Mars said, adding that they will seek new members for the consortium, including those from academia, government, and industry. 

While food companies already have programs to manage food safety, the initiative and its use of genomics will broaden the understanding and categorization of microorganisms "on a much bigger scale than has previously been possible," the partners said. 

"Genome sequencing serves as a new kind of microscope – one that uses data to peer deeply into our natural environment to uncover insights that were previously unknowable," said Jeff Welser, VP and lab director at IBM Research-Almaden. "By mining insights from genomic data, we're seeking to understand how to identify, interpret, and ultimately create healthy and protective microbial management systems within the food supply chain."