Taking the guesswork out of microbial production

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Bacteria

A Netherlands-based research company claims a breakthrough in
developing a more efficient way to produce the microorganisms used
in industrial food production.

The process brings cost-efficient and sustainable microbial production within reach of all companies and reduces the time-to-market for new bioprocesses, ingredients, functional products and amino acids, says TNO, a contract research company based in the country. The process can also be used to produce the microbial strains used by the food industry to extend shelf life, kill pathogens and to improve quality.

Microorganisms play an important role in the industrial production of food and feed ingredients, medicines and other compounds. In fact, using microorganisms to produce foods such as yoghurt, beer, cheese has been around a long time.

One way to achieve commercially viable production levels is through genetic strain improvement, a key aspect in industrial biotechnology. Since microorganisms can contain over five thousands genes, about half of which have a function that is still unknown, processors generally used a trial-and-error method.

This can waste a company's time and money. Current methods to improve conventional microbial production processes have so far resulted in efficiency gains of only one to three per cent, the company said in an announcement today.

"The industry is continuously looking for ways to increase the efficiency of microbial production processes,"​ TNO stated in a press release. " However, to a large extend, the bacterial cell metabolism is still a black box. Therefore, until now, process optimisation has been mainly a process of trial-and-error, resulting in only small improvements for large scale processes."

The TNO process, which the company developed over the past five years, can boost microbal production yield by 50 per cent in nine months, the company claimed in an announcement today.

One way to achieve commercially viable production levels is through genetic strain improvement, which the TNO process attempts to address. The process applies to the genetic improvement of microbial production strains that play a role in the fermentation or enzymatic conversion of biomaterials into end products.

The core of TNO's process is its metabolomics toolbox. Metabolomics is the study of specific cellular processes and the end products. TNO said its process allowed it to process large amounts of data on microorganisms, compile it, then create a systematic method for harnessing those processes.

Metabolomics is a genomics technology that measures and compares all metabolites - intermediates of chemical reactions - that are present in a microbial cell. Like other genomics technologies, the research generates an avalanche of data. TNO was able to take the data, extract the relevant information, and identify methods for genetically improving the microbial production strains used in food production.

The data was collected in the toolbox, which the company is marketing as a product to the food industry.

"TNO has been able to identify the targets that are most relevant for improving the production process, without any bias, thus accelerating process optimisation,"​ the company stated. "In addition, application of the toolbox has resulted in new insights into cellular metabolism, generating new intellectual property opportunities."

TNO said it has successfully used its new metabolomics toolbox for several applications. One example is the production of phenylalanine, a building block for the artificial sweetener aspartame, through the use of the bacterium E. coli. It is also a precursor in the production of some aromatic compounds and antibiotics.

TNO said it was able to use the toolbox to increase phenylalanine production yield by 50 per cent.

Microbials are increasingly being used to produce "pure ingredients", such as single vitamins and flavours, said Mariët van der Werf, TNO's product manager for microbial production processes in Zeist, the Netherlands.

"The technology is still in its early stages,"​ she told FoodProductionDaily.com in an interview. "Our technology has broad applications in the food industry."

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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