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Bioinformatics Focus for NIC’s First Faculty Startup

Combining biotechnology and computational data to ensure food safety and quality is the aim of Metagenome Analytics, the first UNL faculty startup at Nebraska Innovation Campus.

MGA, a bioinformatics company led by UNL food scientist Andrew Benson, targets a growing industry need. Next-generation DNA sequencing technology has vast potential to help companies and regulatory agencies track microorganisms in food and pharmaceutical products. However, that sequencing generates massive and unorganized data, like confetti shooting out of a cannon.

The ability to organize bioinformatics data is key to using it to enhance food safety and security, from detecting foodborne illnesses to improving the quality of food supplements. There’s a huge need for companies that can manage, analyze and interpret data for the food industry and for public health purposes, said Benson, the W.W. Marshall Distinguished Professor of Biotechnology.

MGA combines expertise in gut microbiome research and genomic biology of microorganisms with knowledge in cloud-based computing, databases and algorithms. Benson’s collaborators include Khalid Sayood, electrical and computer engineering professor; Rohita Sinha, research assistant professor; Ufuk Nalbantoglu of Erciyes University in Turkey; and UNL alumnus The “Ty” Nguyen of Professional Computer Solutions.

Andy Benson in his NIC Metagenome Analytics. For Office of Research Annual report. June 21, 2016. Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communications
Andy Benson (right) talks with Rohita Sinha.

Food companies hire MGA to manage, process and analyze data from next-generation DNA sequencing. Clients use the information to improve product quality, prevent foodborne illness or identify spoilage.

Recently, MGA partnered with international food safety company Neogen to develop NeoSeek Salmonella, a tool for detecting and identifying the source of salmonella strains.

Another potential niche for MGA is analyzing the metabolic makeup of food supplements and probiotics, to help companies ensure their products contain the ideal mix of microorganisms for health benefits.

MGA partnered with NIC in fall 2015, advancing NIC’s goal of creating an entrepreneurial climate for UNL researchers pursuing commercialization opportunities. For MGA, joining NIC has brought visibility to the growing company and close ties to UNL’s Department of Food Science and Technology.

“We view the environment being created at NIC as a tremendous opportunity for MGA to help drive the science that will radically change how we think about the security and safety of our food supply,” Benson said.


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