Nuclear Techniques to Support Risk Assessment of Biotoxins and Pathogen Detection in Food and Related Matrices

Open for proposals

Project Type

Coordinated Research Project

Project Code




Approved Date

9 September 2021


3 - Active - Ongoing

Start Date

14 December 2021

Expected End Date

31 December 2026


Research is required now for development, validation, establishment and implementation of nuclear/isotopic analytical techniques and approaches to support rapid and cost-effective testing, investigation and control of biotoxins and pathogens of food safety, public health, zoonotic and antimicrobial resistance relevance. This research is necessary to facilitate global risk assessment as well as preparedness and ability to respond to current and future food safety and related emergencies associated with biotoxins and foodborne pathogens.
Food safety is increasingly a global concern due to its impact on daily life, general public health (Kirk et al, 2015) and trade. Worldwide, 600 million people fall sick and 420,000 die, annually due to foodborne illnesses attributed to among others, toxins of natural, microbial, plant, and certain animal sources. It is important that these biological hazards (biotoxins) are well controlled, and the risk of exposure regulated. A large proportion of the foodborne diseases are caused by microbes. A major global challenge today is for researchers, food safety laboratories and other stakeholders to be prepared to identify and characterize emerging food pathogens (and related hazards such as biotoxins/non-infectious agents), that may be associated with epidemics/pandemics. While a large portion of outbreaks are attributed to bacteria, viruses including the corona viruses, have accounted for a fair share of outbreaks and the current COVID-19 pandemic provides a reminder and the need for vigilance and ability to conduct appropriate investigations. Relatedly, anthropic eutrophication, rising CO2 levels and global warming are likely to increase the frequency, intensity and duration of cyanobacterial blooms in many aquatic ecosystems across the globe (Huisman et al., 2018). This trend may threaten the use of cyanotoxins-contaminated freshwaters for drinking water, fishing, aquaculture, livestock water and irrigation.
A major challenge to Member States is the limited analytical capabilities and risk assessment tools to enable reliable and effective testing as well as control of a wide range of biotoxins and microbiological hazards. Another challenge is the need for accurate and timely/rapid identification of culprit pathogen/agents in case of outbreaks. For instance, traditional/conventional microbial detection methods are laborious, time consuming and therefore not very helpful when responding to food safety emergencies.
Other bottlenecks are: 1) systems that are not harmonized; 2) limited general diagnostic and investigative capabilities, and 3)  limited background data on a broad range of hazards. Outbreak investigation thus remains a challenge to developing and developed Member States alike. Nuclear and isotopic techniques along with mass spectrometric tools such as Matrix assisted laser desorption ionization mass spectrometry (MALDI TOF MS) among others, can offer solutions in the accurate timely detection and characterization of pathogens to species level. Establishment of robust, reliable and reproducible data is required and is a target for current investigations because identification and discrimination of micro-organisms such as bacteria down to subspecies level remains a challenge for numerous micro-organisms. The capabilities can also generate information on biotoxins including biomarkers.
Development, evaluation, optimization and validation of analytical protocols can help generate reliable and reproducible data, whose usage  and exchange can be arranged among laboratories and research groups around the world. Such collaborative research coordinated by the Joint FAO/IAEA is very important for accredited laboratories to be involved in outbreak investigations. The protocols would be standardized and enable interlaboratory comparisons. This will further build confidence in the methods used to identify pathogenic organisms and biotoxins or associated hazards in food and related samples.
This 5-year CRP will bring together 15-20 scientists in developed and developing countries, conducting research on related topics and the outputs can then be used, widely shared and applied around the world to address cases and incidences associated with biotoxins and microbiological hazards in foods and related matrices. The CRP will also contribute to IAEA’s efforts to help Member States address outbreaks such as through the Zoonotic Diseases Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative  from a food safety perspective.


To develop and implement methodology to support food safety and related laboratories/institutions as well as control programmes in Member States, in early, rapid and reliable detection and/or characterization of biotoxins (including fresh-/inland water cyanotoxins) and foodborne pathogens including zoonotic agents associated with food and related matrices and facilitate preparedness and response to relevant public health emergencies.

Specific objectives

To develop improved detection techniques for rapid identification and characterization of foodborne pathogens (including targeted zoonotic agents) and those from associated water sources by: MALDI TOF MS; Isotope-assisted proteomics; creating an enhanced MALDI database for emerging pathogens

To identify and characterize biomarkers of biotoxins (including cyanotoxins) and foodborne pathogens, including targeted zoonotic as well as emerging agents

To develop, validate and optimize rapid, reliable and confirmatory nuclear, isotopic and complementary analytical methods for testing, monitoring and control of a wide scope of biotoxins (including cyanotoxins found in fresh-/inland water and a range of foods) and pathogens (including zoonotic agents) in food and related matrices

To develop and implement rapid and cost-effective sample preparation tools and techniques for biotoxins (including cyanotoxins) and food pathogens

To develop tools to facilitate generation and dissemination of reliable scientific data to support risk assessment strategies related to control and mitigation of biotoxins (including cyanotoxins) and microbial hazards (including zoonotic agents)

To investigate and conduct correlation studies on levels and patterns of biotoxins (including cyanotoxins) and microbial hazards (including zoonotic agents), and associated prevalence/incidence

To prepare and disseminate research findings and methodologies

To generate relevant protocols and standard operating procedures (SOPs)

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