Newsletter: January 16, 2018

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.

Breeding better crops faster with LED lights
Speed Breeding Greenhouse Using a speed growing technique that employs LED lights has the potential to dramatically accelerate the process of breeding better-performing crops, according to researchers at John Innes Centre in England and Australian institutions, the University of Queensland and the University of Sydney. Results of the study appeared in January in the scientific journal Nature Plants. The new speed breeding technique means that it’s now possible to grow six generations of wheat every year—a threefold increase over current growth rates.

“Globally, we face a huge challenge in breeding higher-yielding and more resilient crops,” says Brande Wulff of the John Innes Centre, lead author on the paper. He explains that plants look green to the human eye because they use the blue and red light in the visible spectrum for photosynthesis and reflect the green light. Sodium vapor lamps that have traditionally been used in greenhouses produce a lot of light in the green and yellow spectrum. “So, although to the human eye, sodium vapor lamps look bright, most of this light is useless to plants,” he explains. “The sodium vapor lamps also produce a lot of heat—again not directly useful for photosynthesis,” he continues. “We are therefore wasting a lot of precious energy in our glasshouses [greenhouses]. It is more cost-effective to produce light in the photosynthetic active part of the spectrum, and if you need to heat the environment in which you grow the plants, there are often cheaper sources for this than electricity.”

Wulff says that the LED lights are the main feature of this approach to speed growing, but the process also uses a slightly more intense fertilizer regime to enhance growth. “We have found that it is essentially a simple technology that has proven itself easy to install and adopt in different labs around the world,” he notes. Wulff says that in recent years there has been a revolution in the quality of LED lights and their cost has plummeted, which will help lower the barriers for more widespread adoption of speed breeding for commercial crop production. “I would like to think that 10 years from now you could walk into a field and point to plants whose attributes and traits were developed using this technology,” he says.

In addition to wheat, the speed breeding technique has been used for barley, peas, chickpeas, and canola. Speed breeding can be combined with other technologies, including CRISPR gene editing, to provide additional benefits, notes researcher Lee Hickey from the University of Queensland.

Wulff explains that it typically takes 15 to 20 years to breed a superior new crop variety, and the number of generations that can be cycled through in a year is one of the bottlenecks in traditional breeding approaches. In the 1950s and 1960s, an approach called shuttle breeding helped bring about what has been termed the Green Revolution, allowing breeders to grow two generations of wheat in a year. If these researchers have their way, a new Green Revolution may be in the works.


The role of taste pathology in weight gain
Woman eating a donutMany elements play a part in determining weight, including genetics, environment, activity level, and stress. But research conducted by Linda M. Bartoshuk, Bushnell Professor of Food Science & Human Nutrition at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, indicates that the role of taste and the effects of taste pathology are also significant.

According to Bartoshuk, taste input tends to inhibit other oral sensory input. But when taste damage occurs—as a result, say, of a middle ear infection (otitis media), tonsillectomy, or mild head injury—even minor damage to taste can release inhibition on other sensory systems, such that sensations from those systems intensify. “For example,” she says, “minor taste damage can intensify the tactile sensations evoked by fats (e.g., thick, creamy). This sensory intensification can lead to enhanced preferences for high fat foods, [which in turn] can lead to increased intake and weight gain.”

Research on how taste damage occurs and whether it can be diminished is needed to better understand and control its effects on weight. There is also much to be gained by exploring the role of affect in food preference. “Currently in food science, we do not focus enough on the affect (pleasure/displeasure) associated with the sensory properties of foods,” says Bartoshuk. “Better understanding of food affect will help us to focus on how we can alter foods to maintain the affect that is so important to quality of life and still make foods healthier.”

In the meantime, she says, “We can be more vigilant about weight gain in populations with clinical conditions associated with taste damage. Unfortunately, we cannot easily reduce the taste damage now, but as we learn more and more about taste, we may find ways to do this in the future.” A few of the questions that need to be explored, says Bartoshuk, are “How do we learn to like/dislike foods? What does alteration in the sensory properties of foods contribute to that learning process? To the extent that sensory properties matter, can we alter those sensory properties to maximize the palatability of healthy foods?”

The latter possibility is particularly important to Bartoshuk and her researchers. “My students and I are now collaborating with colleagues in horticulture. We are identifying which constituents in healthy foods are contributing the most to the pleasure experienced from those foods. This allows us to create ‘recipes’ for highly palatable fruits and vegetables that we can aim to create by cross-breeding (no genetically modified plants, I'm sorry to say, since there is so much prejudice against them).”


Does mild food poisoning trigger chronic disease?
Salmonella BacteriaAs if coming down with a case of food poisoning isn’t bad enough, new research suggests that repeated bouts of it can be a trigger for chronic disease. According to research published last month in the journal Science, even cases of bacterial infections that produce only mild symptoms may ultimately lead to chronic inflammation and serious cases of colitis and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

A team of researchers led by Jamey Marth of Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, La Jolla, Calif., spent eight years on the project, developing a model of mild human food poisoning using mice that they infected with a low dose of Salmonella Typhimurium, a leading cause of human foodborne illness. The mice were infected repeatedly over a period of months. Inflammation in the mice increased steadily over time, and colitis was present in all the mice by the fourth infection.

“This type of study had never been done before and the results were shocking,” says lead author Won Ho Yang. “We observed the onset of a progressive and irreversible inflammatory disease caused by previous infections. That was quite surprising because the pathogen had been easily cleared by the host.”

The researchers explain that the disease mechanism is linked to an acquired deficiency of intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP), an enzyme produced in the small intestine. Salmonella infection elevated neuraminidase activity in the small intestine, and that in turn accelerated molecular aging and the turnover of IAP, leading to an IAP deficiency in the colon. This is important, Marth explains, because IAP detoxifies the pro-inflammatory lipopolysaccharide in the intestinal tract.

There are ways to boost IAP levels: It can be added to drinking water, for example. And it’s possible to inhibit neuraminidase by using a drug that is currently marketed to prevent influenza viral infections. According to the research team, both approaches were similarly effective at preventing the onset of colitis.

Because low-grade food contamination is likely very common, the findings represent potentially concerning news for humans, Marth notes. He adds that after a certain number of inflammatory responses, “there may be a point of no return from the tissue damage and disease” although this may differ from person to person. He adds that the researchers are working now to study whether other pathogens in addition to Salmonella may play a role in colitis and IBS.


Fermentation turns spent grain into 'food' for yeast
Spent GrainsIn the beer-making process, when yeast converts grains into alcohol, a significant amount of spent grain remains. Breweries don’t use it, so it is often made into compost or animal feed. A team of scientists from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore developed a way to turn spent brewery grains into a growth medium for the yeast Rhodosporidium toruloides.

Specifically, the researchers created a fermentation technology to extract nutrients out of brewer’s spent grains. “The fermentation product can actually replace commercial yeast culture medium, not only for R. toruloides but also other yeasts including baker’s yeast S. cerevisiae,” says William Chen, professor and director of the food science and technology program at Nanyang Technological University. “R. toruloides is used in our research for liquid food waste reduction and conversion to high-value carotenoids.” He adds that the team’s fermentation product can replace commercial yeast culture medium at a fraction of its current cost (<10%). They published their study in AMB Express.

Their discovery of using fermentation to convert waste into a cost-effective yeast growth medium not only has positive implications for the beer industry, but also for other areas in the food industry. “As Singapore imports more than 90% of foods, there is a need to maximize the utilization of the imported foods which reduces the pressure on the food import,” says Chen. The fermentation technology has also been applied to soybean residues, he adds.

That’s not all. Chen and fellow researchers have developed a simple and cost-effective technology to extract cellulose from the remaining solid waste after fermentation. “Cellulose from our extraction has been shown to have similar property as commercial cellulose when made into packaging materials. And ours is bio-based and biodegradable.”

The innovations on the brewer’s spent grains and the other has resulted in what Chen calls “a zero-waste food processing circular economy,” which enhances food sustainability. Up next is applying the technology and knowledge to tackling other types of food waste issues such as municipal food waste, which Chen says has a much larger volume and is in need of effective solutions.


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Published every Tuesday, this newsletter explores what are, arguably, the next big things in the science of food.