Food Innovation Center

Collaborating for a healthier, hunger-free world.

Jiyoung Lee Fights for Safer Foods

With her recent FIC Seed Grant to improve local food security and health in urban environments with hydroponic food systems, in addition to her grant awarded by the Environmental Protection Agency to study safer drinking water coming in from Lake Erie, Food Innovation Center member Jiyoung Lee keeps busy with her research.

As window farms quickly continue to rise in popularity in urban areas, Lee, an Assistant Professor of Environmental Microbiology in Environmental Health Sciences and Food Science & Technology, was quick to realize the need for investigating and preventing microbial pathogens from spreading through a window farm's water circulation. Window farms are relatively new, only starting in 2009 in New York. A window farm system hangs vertically in a window and can easily be made with household or recycled items, such as water bottles. The plants are connected vertically so that water drips from one plant to another below it. Window farms are convenient because they require little space, no soil, and are relatively easy to maintain. This is important for improving local food security in urban areas by providing vegetables and herbs year-round.

One of the drawbacks of window farms is their tendency for plant roots to become infected (which shortens the life of the plants). Lee is tackling this issue by investigating fungal infection in lettuce and tomatoes with the collaboration of Drs. Parwinder Grewal and Zuzana Bohrerova. By using UV irradiation of the water and placing small beads around the plant roots, lifespan of the roots and crop yield is maximized, while biofilm buildup (a thin layer of bacteria that sticks to surfaces) is minimized. In turn, this project will help ensure healthier plants with longer lifespans as well as better efficiency by increasing reusable water. These beneficial aspects of window farms will be helpful in emergency food situations in areas with contaminated soil or water shortages. In the near future, Lee hopes to see window farms in schools to help educate students.

In addition to her recent Seed Grant, Lee was previously funded by the FIC for her project on "Plant Stress and Its Impact on Internalization of Bacteria and Viruses in Fresh Produce." This project aims to decrease our chances for foodborne illnesses from eating raw produce. When we buy fruits and vegetables from the grocery store, it's usually pre-sanitized with chlorine and then we wash it again at home with water. But what if that fruit or vegetable had internalized salmonella or hepatitis A? In that case, conventional washing of the produce will have no effect on internalized viruses, posing health risks to consumers.

 "Surface pathogens can be easily removed or inactivated. However, internalized pathogens cannot be easily accessed by disinfectant, so those are the ones that can cause foodborne illness outbreak when we eat them (fresh produce, such as salad) raw," says Lee.

By investigating pathogen internalization in fresh produce (specifically plant stress experienced pre-harvest) Lee is helping to fight foodborne illnesses found in our fresh produce. With climate change becoming more significant, it is important to better understand the role of extreme weather events in the internalization of pathogens for fresh produce.

Since becoming an FIC member, Lee enjoys the efficiency and experiencing of working with FIC.

"FIC is inviting and inclusive of students and faculty interested in food," Lee says. "It really supports members in action and collaboration."

 Written by Chau-Sa Dang