Scientists at Iowa State University and the U.S.D.A. laboratories in Ames are working to develop a better test to protect humans against Mad Cow Disease. The disease is transferred when central nervous system tissue from cattle ends up in finished beef products.

ISU researcher Jacob Petrich says they’ve discovered that brain and spinal cord tissue shows up in a distinctive way when you shine light on meat. "One day when we were performing these tests, we realized that the spinal cord glowed," Petrich explained. "Based upon that discovery, we tried to determine whether or not we could determine central nervous system tissue in meat products."

The test could be a big advance over current methods, which involve grinding up meat and analyzing it in a test tube. Petrich says the new method would simply allow scientists to look for a certain color of light to come back off the package, indicating if there’s brain or spinal cord in the meat.

Scientists hope the method can even be used to detect mad cow disease in live cattle, for which there is no rapid widespread test. "Every substance has a particular fingerprint or signature for how it floresces and neural tissue has a special fingerprint…we’re basically exploiting that fingerprint," Petrich said. The research at ISU was recently published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.