Dr Eric Altermann and his team are anticipating the first commercial run of products using their tech in a matter of weeks.
AgResearch principal scientist Dr Eric Altermann admits he has a dream to see a charcuterie of uniquely New Zealand meats and salamis, along with fermented dairy and plant products on the market someday soon. Richard Rennie spoke to him on how his and his team’s work on fermented foods will make that a reality.
Over the past four and a half years AgResearch’s Fermented Foods research team has managed to slice through tens of thousands of evolved bacterial strains to find those with traits most suited to enhancing the flavour and texture of meat, dairy, and plant fermented food types.
The tool that has enabled them to accelerate the natural process of genetic change, which would otherwise have been an almost impossibly time-consuming and frustrating process, has been a high-throughput robotics handling and assaying (screening) platform, developed by AgResearch principal scientist Dr Eric Altermann and his team.
“The platform’s technology allows us to take bacteria, subject them to rapid genetic evolution using sources such as UV light and then identify those evolved variants which exhibit a positive change towards the desired traits,” Altermann said.
“Such traits could be used to lower pH faster, for example, or enhance a certain flavour.
“This platform technology allows us to modulate that bacteria’s capability, without having to introduce any new genetic information, avoiding the creation of genetically modified bacteria entirely.”
By accelerating the bacteria’s natural processes of genetic change by exposing them to UV light and compounds that interact with the genetic material, the bacteria’s genetic blueprint is altered, resulting in new evolved variants where a particular trait of interest can be modulated.
“It is totally random which bacteria will happen to be the right one. The real trick is to find it in the 10,000 to 20,000 we test which ones have the trait,” he said.
Sliding up or down the intensity of the bacteria’s trait means a commercial client can select, for example, pH to reach a certain level quicker than the bacteria they currently use.
“The beauty of our tech is we can carry out the assay screening on such large numbers, a capability not always easily replicated at such scale, but necessary given the number of bacteria required to be screened,” he said.
Ultimately a client food company will end up with a proprietary bacteria for a specific food task that can be patented.
Altermann sees a real opportunity to use the commercial bacteria to tailor the taste profiles of NZ’s quality raw food products to better meet the palates of differing markets around the world.
“There are distinct regional differences in consumers’ palates, if you can develop a bacterial strain that helps the food better match it, uptake will be quicker,” he said.
For example, most Asian palates perceive an undesired level of bitterness in NZ cheese products that western tastes identify as a positive enhancement to the cheese’s flavour. Using bacteria to modify the bitter peptide level will cater to that taste.
Often commercial food-starter bacteria currently used will tend to fall into a middle ground, sometimes resulting in a blander food product than some consumers would prefer.
As a German fond of quality sausages and dried meats, he can relate to a level of blandness in mainstream local equivalents here.
Commercial interest in the technology has been strong, with industry partners including Fonterra, Alliance, Spring Sheep Milk and Sanford.
The team has also crossed a major hurdle recently by gaining authority approval for the bacteria’s use in food products on grounds it is not a GMO and not classed as ‘novel foods’.
What also excites Altermann is the potential to partner with iwi on identifying and isolating bacterial strains sourced from NZ’s deep pool of indigenous native microbes.
Māori have a history of fermented foods and under leadership from iwi partner Wakatu Incorporation, scientists have collected plant samples to isolate microbes to explore further under future joint ventures.
In the meantime, in a few short weeks, Altermann and his team will witness the first pilot production run and taste panel evaluation under leadership of Professor Joanne Hort of Massey University. The product includes the evolved bacterial strains they have created.
As a microbiologist he said he is accustomed to 90% of research being unsuccessful, while inherently becoming suspicious about the other 10% if it does succeed.
“Microbes are very flexible and don’t like to be manipulated and pushed around. So, to see we can evolve them into stable strains that can be used commercially, it is a highlight to be able to say this really has worked,” he said.