Saturday, April 20, 2024

How Fonterra’s sorting good bugs from bad

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Sequencing and an Irish partnership are helping Fonterra to pick through a milk culture treasure trove.
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New Zealand is known for the unique flora and fauna that being an island nation brings, but Fonterra researchers at the Fonterra Research and Development Centre in Palmerston North are also finding evidence that uniqueness applies to the bugs lurking in this country’s raw milk.

Fonterra has tens of thousands of milk cultures from almost 100 years of dairy processing stored in its extensive “library” and is just starting to better understand the potential they may hold for future innovations.

Shalome Bassett, Fonterra’s head of scientific affairs in the Palmerston North innovation centre, says she and her team are increasingly excited by what genomic sequencing technology is starting to reveal about their milk culture treasure trove.

She says genomic sequencing tech has come forward in leaps and bounds over the past decade. 

Fonterra’s Research and Development lab can unravel a culture’s DNA in a few days, presenting researchers with a genetic blueprint identifying marker genes for aspects including flavour, colour, and appearance. 

“Fonterra is also one of the few dairy companies in the world to have this sort of capacity in-house,”  Bassett says.

With almost 40,000 cultures in storage, the depth of cultures to screen is both daunting, and full of potential.

Fonterra has recently forged a partnership with the world-leading Irish research centre APC Microbiome, and established the Fonterra Microbiome Research Centre co-located with the APC Microbiome at University College Cork, focusing on the human microbiome.

A key focus is to identify and substantiate health benefits of the probiotic cultures Fonterra has isolated, aiming to launch several new strains within the next decade.

The partnership involves the skills of Ireland-based bioinformaticians, scientists capable of understanding the mechanics of genomic sequencing and protein structure within large data sets. 

“They are looking at the ‘uniqueness’ of Kiwi cultures that we are examining, and with that may come the ability to patent that strain as our own.”
Fonterra has two commercially patented probiotic cultures already utilised in probiotic supplements, Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus HN001 (sold as Surestart LactoB HN001 and Nutiani HN001) and Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis HN019 (sold as Surestart BifidoB HN019 and Nutiani HN019). 

LactoB HN001 is marketed as an ingredient that helps support immunity and health in mothers and young children.

BifidoB HN019 is focused on improved immunity and digestive health by reducing gut discomfort and addressing the symptoms of constipation.

Fonterra’s head of scientific affairs Shalome Bassett says there are some exciting opportunities for Fonterra to identify and market unique probiotic cultures extracted from the co-op’s vast library of milk cultures.

The products were initially “gut” focused, but a greater understanding of the brain-gut axis is revealing how a healthier gut plays a big part in a healthy brain.

“For most of the strains we are sequencing, we are finding they are unique to NZ. The reasons are varied but could be attributable to the way we farm compared to the rest of the world, and our relative isolation.” 

She says researchers are always looking for new strains. This can even include “nappy drives” that give researchers the unenviable task of picking through used disposable nappies for isolatable cultures.

“We are also using the genomic sequencing data to link unique sequencing to unique health benefits. Some strains are now going into human health studies.”
Genomic sequencing is also proving an effective way to assess the safety of identified cultures, to ensure that they are not carriers for antibiotic resistance. 

This particular trait is also why probiotics are getting greater attention as alternative treatments or preventatives in sectors like pork and poultry, where antibiotic resistance has become more prevalent.

Bassett says whole genome sequencing also increases Fonterra’s ability to manage the risk of unwanted bacteria in the co-op’s manufacturing plants with pinpoint accuracy by making the invisible, visible. 

“This technology holds promise to augment the continued development of predictive strategies, preventive measures, and improved product quality within the food industry by helping companies like Fonterra better understand micro-organisms so that unwanted bacteria can be quickly identified and eliminated. 

“It’s now an integral part of Fonterra’s food safety quality management system.

“Whole genome sequencing is a fantastic resource we can use right across our business,” Bassett says. 

“What’s more, the tech is developing all the time so I’m sure we’re going to find many other uses for it.”

This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

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