Printed Silk-Based Colorimetric Sensors for Food Spoilage Prevention and Supply Chain Authentication

Printed Silk-Based Colorimetric Sensors for Food Spoilage Prevention and Supply Chain Authentication
A. John Hart, Associate Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Benedetto Marelli, Paul M. Cook Career Development Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Period of performance: 

September 2018 to August 2020
L. Monocytogenes, E. coli, Salmonella, food safety, silk, lithography, food spoilage, meat, dairy


In a world that strives to enhance agricultural output, minimization of food loss from “field to fork” is a major priority to guarantee food security.  Globally, approximately one third of the world’s food supply (1.3 billion tons) is wasted annually.  As a major contributor to waste, food spoilage is an ethical issue, an economic burden, and an environmental problem.  In the United States alone, food safety incidents cost $7B per year in costs associated with notifying consumers, removing food from shelves, and paying damages as a result of lawsuits.  Additionally, the CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.   In developing countries and in the tropics, half of the harvested fruits and vegetables are lost in the food supply chain due to microbial spoilage.

Cost-effective and easy-to-use methods to detect food spoilage, and to inform consumers of spoilage, are critical to address this problem.  In this project, the research team will develop an integrated materials-manufacturing platform for low-cost printed colorimetric sensors for food spoilage and authentication, which will be initially validated for bacterial sensing on meat and dairy products.  The project will integrate the expertise of Prof. John Hart’s lab in Mechanical Engineering and Prof. Benedetto Marelli’s lab in Civil and Environmental Engineering, who will focus on novel printing technologies and formulation of protein-specific colorimetric inks, respectively. The sensors will respond via antibodies’ interaction with a pathogen that results in a color change, which will be visible to the naked eye.  The antibody can be chosen to respond to a specific antigen target or to a gas, and direct printing will enable multiple inks to be printed in a single pattern in order to improve accuracy and sensitivity.   The team will initially focus on the most common and hazardous contaminants, i.e. L. Monocytogenes, E. coli, and Salmonella.