Christina Allingham and Sloane Stoufer, both PhD Candidates working with Assistant Professor Matthew Moore and Associate Professor Amanda Kinchla in the Department of Food Science, have received prestigious USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) predoctoral fellowships for their research related to food safety and foodborne viruses. 

Foodborne viruses, and norovirus in particular, are the leading cause of foodborne illnesses in the US and around the globe. USDA NIFA predoctoral fellowships are only given to the top tier of PhD Candidates in the agricultural sciences. Only 93 of these prestigious fellowships were awarded this year, with Christina and Sloane receiving two of the three fellowships related to microbial food safety. 

Christina Allingham focuses on understanding the potential of foodborne viruses to develop enhanced recalcitrance to disinfectants with their misuse.  

Christina Allingham
Christina Allingham

A major challenge in controlling foodborne viruses is the lack of efficacy of many commonly used disinfectants. In addition to their inherently suboptimal inactivation, many people who use the disinfectants may not properly apply them, further reducing their efficacy in food service settings. Specifically, they may not thoroughly clean surfaces prior to disinfecting, leaving a large organic load behind that will use up the active chemicals in the disinfectant and thereby reducing the contact time required for the disinfectant to work effectively. 

“My work and its outputs will make a significant impact on the future of retail food safety and virus evolution research, and I am extremely excited for this project.”
—Christina Allingham

Noroviruses have error-prone replication and can mutate quickly. This combined with their high degree of environmental (surface) transmission and prevalence in the population makes the potential selection for and circulation of norovirus variants that are more resistant to disinfectants. 

Sloane Stoufer, working with Moore and in collaboration with Dr. Byron Brehm-Stecher and Dr. Jared Anderson at Iowa State University, is conducting research related to single-tube separation, concentration, and genomic extraction of human norovirus using a type of capture reagent called magnetic ionic liquids (MILs), to make virus detection simpler and faster. 

Typically, there are several steps involved for detection of viruses from contaminated foods or surfaces, including separation of the virus from the contaminated sample, concentration into a smaller volume to increase the likelihood of detection, and extraction of the genetic material. Each of these steps requires different equipment and materials, making virus detection a long and labor-intensive process. Stoufer’s research project could help streamline the virus detection process. 

“We believe we can combine all these steps into a single method using magnetic ionic liquids (MILs), which would make virus detection much simpler and faster.”
—Sloane Stoufer

Sloane Stoufer
Sloane Stoufer

The major advantage of MILs as a capture reagent, Stoufer explains, is that they do not require cold storage and their use requires little to no electrical equipment. This means that this method can be used outside of traditional laboratories, allowing for virus detection to be performed directly on site at the point of need, instead of having samples shipped to centralized diagnostic laboratories. Stoufer’s collaborators at Iowa State had previously used MILs to separate and concentrate bacteria from food samples, with very favorable results. 

UMass Assistant Professor Matthew Moore, an expert on foodborne viruses, was originally contacted to do a similar study in his lab with viruses instead of bacteria. Stoufer proposed not only using MILs as a capture reagent for the virus particles, but to also utilize them for follow-up capture of viral genomes (genomic extraction), and that idea became the basis for her successful USDA fellowship application. It is also possible that this work could have applications outside the field of food safety. 

“We are very excited to receive this fellowship because it shows that the USDA recognizes the importance of controlling the spread of foodborne viruses.”
—Sloane Stoufer

Viruses are believed to be the leading cause of foodborne illness by far, but because they are much harder to detect than bacterial pathogens it is often difficult to determine the source of a foodborne virus outbreak. This important work being conducted by UMass Amherst researchers and their collaborators strives to reduce and detect foodborne viruses to improve food safety globally. 

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