Newsletter: January 9, 2018

Gut microbiome
Researched and written weekly by the editorial team of Food Technology magazine, the IFTNEXT Newsletter explores what are, arguably, the next big things in the science of food through original reporting of scientific breakthroughs, leading-edge technology, novel food components, and transdisciplinary R&D.

Healthy youth and seniors have surprisingly similar gut microbiomes 
Healthy elderly people have something in common with adults decades younger: a similar gut microbiota composition. Researchers at Canada’s Western University and Lawson Health Research Institute and Tianyi Health Science Institute in China studied the gut bacteria in a group of more than 1,000 healthy Chinese individuals ranging in age from 3 to over 100 years old. They found a direct correlation between health and the microbial population in the intestine and showed that there was little difference in the gut microbiota of individuals from the age of 30 to 100-plus.

“The main conclusion is that if you are ridiculously healthy and 90 years old, your gut microbiota is not that different from a healthy 30-year-old in the same population,” says Greg Gloor, the principal investigator on the study, a professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, and a scientist at Lawson. “It begs the question, ‘If you can stay active and eat well, will you age better, or is healthy aging predicated by the bacteria in your gut?’” says Gregor Reid, one of the study’s authors, who is also a professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and a scientist at Lawson. “The findings are a bit of a chicken and egg question,” Gloor agrees. “If the microbiota is healthy and diverse, it is certainly easier to maintain a healthy lifestyle since you can eat more diverse foods without problems,” he adds.

According to Gloor, one the emerging findings in the field of microbiome research is that what’s significant about a gut microbiome is not necessarily which bacteria are present but what they are capable of—that is, what genes they contain, which of these genes are expressed, and when. “There are a number of papers that show the microbial communities can look very similar by 16S rRNA gene sequencing [but may] contain dramatically different gene contents. … For example, there are E. coli strains (Nistle) that are probiotic and others that are pathogenic (O157) because they contain different genes. However, they are all E. coli and look exactly the same by 16S rRNA gene sequencing.

“Basically a healthy gut microbiota is a diverse one that contains all of the genes necessary to process food and interact with the host appropriately,” Gloor continues. “This means that there is a community made up of many different types of bacteria, but the core gene content is somewhat similar despite which bacteria are there. Each unhealthy gut microbiota is unhealthy in a different way, and we are just beginning to find out the many ways that this can happen.” Gloor further notes that the study demonstrated that a decline in microbial diversity is not an inevitable consequence of aging.

Gloor says the researchers are eager to initiate follow-up studies, but unfortunately they don’t yet have funding for them. For one thing, he says, they would like to study the gut microbiota of people with a variety of chronic diseases. “Second,” he says, “we would like to attempt more functional analyses, such as metagenomic sequencing to determine gene content and metabolomics data collection to see if we can match up microbial species, the genes they carry, and the metabolites they produce. Third, we would like to be able to follow these people over time—ideally, collect from the same cohort every year for several years and correlate changes we see over time with health status.” And finally, he says, the researchers would like to see if gut microbiota can be affected by adjusting dietary intake (fermented foods or probiotics, for example).

Results of the microbiome study were published this past fall in the journal mSphere.


Anthocyanins may inhibit the growth of colon cancer
Red grapesResearchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have been conducting studies that reveal the potency of plant foods against inflammation and chronic diseases. Based on the premise that a high intake of vegetables and fruits is associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer, university researchers conducted an in vitro study to determine which plant foods would be most effective in preventing or reducing the growth of colorectal cancer cells.

Blueberries, sorghum, red and purple corn, and grapes are rich in anthocyanins, a group of flavonoids that confer the red, blue, and purple hues of plant foods. “Cereals, legumes, vegetables, and fruits—these are the very pigmented foods. Berries are one of the most common that people associate with [anthocyanins],” says principal investigator Candice Mazewski, a doctoral student in the University of Illinois’s department of food science and human nutrition. “Any plant food that’s within these purple, blue, or red pigments is likely to have a lot of anthocyanins.” In addition, these biochemical compounds possess properties that are said to be effective at combating oxidation, inflammation, and cancer.

Mazewski and her research collaborators found that extracts from red and purple corn, black lentils, sorghum, and red grapes were capable of inducing apoptosis in colorectal cancer cells. “Black lentils, sorghum, and red grapes were the most potent that I found,” Mazewski reveals. These were able to elicit the response to inhibit the growth of colon cancer.” The study’s results led the researchers to conclude that plants containing phenolic compounds may be significantly important in the battle against all cancers. “The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends a diet that’s very high in plant foods, and plant foods contain these [bioactive] compounds,” says University of Illinois professor Elvira Gonzalez de Mejia, one of the contributing researchers to the study. “So, it makes sense that these compounds have been found to be effective against cancer and other chronic diseases.”


Will the future of sustainable food packaging come from the ocean?
SeaweedThe founders of Evoware, an Indonesian-based start-up, certainly think so. Their solution? Seaweed. It turns out that algae, which grows 30–60 times faster than land-based plants, doesn’t need inputs such as soil, and absorbs vast amounts of carbon dioxide, also happens to be a viable replacement for plastic food packaging.

Imagine dropping a tea sachet into a mug of hot water and watching the sachet dissolve completely, leaving no waste. Or, getting a hamburger to go and not needing to unwrap it before taking a bite. The company’s patented technology enables it to produce food-safe wraps and sachets without the use of chemicals that are edible and 100% biodegradable. Also, there’s the added benefit that seaweed is a good source of vitamins A and C, calcium, and iodine, to name a few.

As David Christian, cofounder and chief of sales, marketing, and impact, explained in an exclusive interview with IFTNEXT Newsletter, the goal is to completely “replace conventional plastic.”

“Currently, our seaweed-based edible packaging is water soluble and can hold only dry and solid products,” continued Christian. “But we will develop our packaging so that it can hold liquid and semi-solid product and—hopefully in the future—we can make it into rigid packaging too.” For now, the company is focused on scaling up to meet what Christian says is more orders than they can currently accommodate. This is in part thanks to a number of awards the company has received, including the recent Circular Design Challenge Award, which came with $100,000 and participation in an accelerator program. Evoware plans to use the funds to expand capacity at its manufacturing facility, which Christian says will enable it to produce at a larger scale beginning mid-2018.

“From the accelerator program, we hope that we can make our products more convenient and practical for the users and our supply chain more efficient so it can cut the total cost [of the product],” explained Christian. Until the company reaches the mass production stage where the price will become competitive with conventional plastic packaging, it continues to target companies that are seeking sustainable solutions that may be willing to pay a little more. With a product that is good for the environment, the seaweed farmers, and for the body, it looks like the future of packaging could indeed come from the ocean.


Engineering harmless bacteria to destroy foodborne pathogens
Bacteria in petri dishWith antibiotic resistance on the rise, scientists are trying to find solutions that control bacterial infections without making the problem worse. One source may lie with so-called “living antibiotics,” bacteria that feed on other disease-causing bacteria to acquire the necessary nutrients for growth and replication.

Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus is a type of predatory bacteria that is harmless to humans but effectively kills Gram negative bacteria such as E. coli. Researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University developed a way to manipulate the genes that influence B. bacteriovorus’ predatory behavior, particularly the timing and extent of it. Their study was published in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology.

Controlling this behavior may someday lead to the development of treatments for many different types of infections. “Manipulating gene expression is necessary for many applications but it is not currently easy to do in B. bacteriovorus,” says Yohei Yokobayashi, associate professor in the Nucleic Acid Chemistry and Engineering Unit at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology and one of the authors of the study. “Our work is just a first step toward developing general tools to do genetic engineering in B. bacteriovorus. Controlling the predatory behavior is just one application which may help us to better understand their basic biology.”

For the study, the researchers inserted a riboswitch—a gene expression-controlling tool—into one of the genes that plays a role in B. bacteriovorus’ predatory behavior. They then treated it with the chemical theophylline. When the modified B. bacteriovorus was placed in a petri dish with E. coli, it multiplied more quickly than unmodified bacteria. From this the researchers developed a way that makes it easier to manipulate gene expression in B. bacteriovorus. Research such as this in the early stages, and Yokobayashi says that his team is not yet actively pursuing practical applications, but that “it may be possible to engineer B. bacteriovorus so that predation occurs only within a defined condition (e.g., in a food processing factory) so that the engineered bacteria cannot replicate in the field.”


Gene-editing yields leaner pigs
Pig in FieldPigs lack a gene that helps them regulate body temperature, which increases the cost of raising them. Using CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology, a group of Chinese researchers have produced pigs that are less susceptible to cold temperatures and also yield leaner meat because they are better able to regulate their own body temperatures by burning fat.

The researchers edited a mouse version of the gene that pigs' lack, UCP1, into pig cells and used those cells to create pig embryos, which were implanted into 13 female pigs, three of which became pregnant, producing 12 male piglets. The piglets were raised to 6 months of age before they were slaughtered and demonstrated what the scientists describe as “an improved ability to maintain body temperature during acute cold weather.”

The research was led by Jianguo Zhao of the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Zhao says that expression of the gene in the pigs’ white adipose tissue decreased fat accumulation by nearly 5% and increased lean carcass percentage by nearly 3.4%. The research findings were published this fall in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where the study results were summarized in this way: “UCP1 KI pigs [the pigs produced by the gene-editing] are a potentially valuable resource for agricultural production through their combination of cold adaptation, which improves pig welfare and reduces economic losses, with reduced fat deposition and increased lean meat production.”

Zhao says he expects the technology to be commercialized and also notes that it could have benefits beyond those related to pork production. He says that investigating the molecular mechanisms of how UCP1 lowers fat deposition “also might provide hints about how to lose weight in humans.”

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