Innovation at Work: Food safety could be improved using magnetic ionic liquids

Magnetic ionic liquids (MILs) could help food manufacturers detect pathogens more quickly. Jared Anderson, the Alice Hudson Professor of Chemistry at Iowa State, explains the patented process. After a small amount of MIL is added to a food sample, a machine shakes the vial, causing smaller MIL globules to collide with microbes. Since the outer surfaces of bacteria and viruses generally have negative charges, they stick to the positively charged MIL. Placing a magnet on the outside of the vial pulls the MIL globules and captured microbes into one spot. The excess liquid is removed, and another solution is added to release the microbes from the MIL. Since microbes may be present at very low levels or distributed unevenly, there are a few options to increase the number of cells or genetic material to a level high enough for detection. One is the nutrient-based growth or “enrichment” method. The researchers create an environment that’s favorable for some microbes to grow and unfavorable for others. The presence of salmonella after selective enrichment on a plate or in broth confirms the contamination of the original food product. Another option, isothermal DNA amplification, uses enzymes in a test tube to make enough copies of a pathogen’s genetic material to allow detection. For more information on how Iowa State is innovating new ways to improve food safety, visit