IBM and Mars kick off new food-supply sequencing project

IBM and Mars put out a joint press release today announcing a new effort to use metagenomics to study microorganisms in the food supply chain. The new initiative, called the Sequencing the Food Supply Chain Consortium (SFSC), will use metagenomics and metatranscriptomics to establish what they call a “microbial baseline” that can later be used to detect anomalous events in the relationship between food and microorganisms associated with food.

From what I understand, the consortium is an IBM business analytics project. These sorts of projects usually focus on financial, technological and process analysis, such as looking for administrative bottlenecks in the internal bureaucracy of a large business. This is the first I’ve heard of a enterprise consulting outfit like IBM using a pure -omics approach to help large clients learn how to understand how their own microbial ecology. I’m quite excited, and a little jealous of the scale and access the investigators are going to have. Sampling and sequencing a big, industrial food company’s supply, manufacturing and distribution systems sounds like one of those thesis proposals that gets excitedly scribbled onto a beer-stained napkin, only to be reluctantly set aside with a wistful sigh.

The press release mentions a two-year commitment to the consortium and a “secure setting” for the research. Unless I am misinterpreting this (which is quite possible), my guess is that much of the findings and data will treated as confidential, proprietary business intelligence. Nevertheless, it’s exciting to see Big Food and Big Consulting thinking along these lines.

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Russell Neches

A microbiology graduate student at UC Davis, working with Jonathan Eisen @phylogenomics . Studies evolution & ecology. Advocate of Open Hardware & Open Access.