August 2000


The good in us all

Collaboration with Khazakhstan boosts ‘probiotics’ for the food supply

ORNL researchers are working with scientists in Kazakhstan on a biotechnological approach to preserving food and preventing food poisoning. It would work by using “good” bacteria to thwart “bad” bacteria that spoil and poison food.

Scientists from the Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences’ Ministry of Education and Science in Almaty are working with scientists from ORNL and the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service to ensure the safety of our diet. It’s part of the DOE’s Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention program to create non-weapons-related work for scientists of the former Soviet Union.

“Contamination of food and drinking water by ‘bad’ bacteria can result in serious illness and even death, especially in children and senior citizens,” says the Chemical Technology Division’s Jonathan Woodward. “This research, guided by U.S. industry and funded by the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention, is aimed at generating bioproducts—called probiotics—that can be used to prevent contamination of food by pathogenic, or ‘bad,’ bacteria.”

Examples of bad bacteria, Woodward says, include strains of E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter species.

Probiotics can be considered “good” bacteria,” he says. “Scientists in Kazakhstan have identified several strains of Lactobacillus, or the lactic acid bacteria commonly found in yogurt, and Propionibacterium, isolated from a variety of sources, that can prevent the growth of the bad bacteria.”

Bringing back the ‘friendly flora’

Probiotics are not new. In primitive cultures, probiotics were a normal part of the diet in the form of traditional fermented foods. Europeans had their fermented milk products (yogurt, kefir, soft cheeses) and vegetables (sauerkraut); Asians had their fermented soy products (miso, tamari) and vegetables (Kim Che, pickled Umeboshi plums). African cultures fermented grains or milk.

Typically, fermented foods were used daily in small amounts and were also prescribed in larger amounts in times of sickness. Unfortunately, says Jonathan Woodward, even though some of these fermented products are still available to us in modern society, they are now usually mass produced by means that are very different from traditional culturing methods, and treated with heat, stabilizers and other chemicals to prolong their shelf life, as well as artificial sweeteners or sugars to mask the taste.

“The ratios, amounts and viability—the ability to survive and be effective—of friendly bacteria are therefore drastically altered,” he says. “In addition, many people have become allergic to the foods used in fermentation, especially milk and soy. Other people are allergic to the yeasts which are part of the specific fermentation process used to make miso, tamari, and cheeses.”

Probiotics could represent a way to reintroduce these friendly flora back into the digestive system.

Probiotics—a general term for all the good bacteria normally in human beings’ intestines—are essential in aiding normal digestion and also as a first line of defense against invading viruses, yeasts, parasites and pathogenic bacteria.

“As they help us digest our food, they secrete certain acidic end-products that are lethal to unfriendly organisms but beneficial to us in normal amounts,” Woodward says. “Our friendly probiotic bacteria are depleted by antibiotics we’ve taken, chemicals in our food or water—especially chlorine—or even by the large amounts of antibiotics and other chemicals present in meats and poultry. Until we replace the probiotic bacteria, we’ve left ourselves vulnerable for more yeast, viral and bacterial infections.”

Probiotics could be introduced into the diet as simply as by sprinkling them onto food. They also offer an alternative to the use of antibiotics in animal feed to ward off infectious diseases or to prevent spoilage.

“A menacing feature of disease control emerging worldwide is the mounting resistance of pathogenic microorganisms to traditional antibiotics,” Woodward says. “In this cooperative project, probiotics are being identified, and also the molecular entities they synthesize, to keep pathogens at bay. This constitutes the prime project focus.”

Kazakhstan scientists have accumulated a rich and so far untapped resource of microorganisms that have antibacterial properties that could prove very valuable to food safety R&D in the United States.

“Because of the collaboration already supported by the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention program, we now have access to these probiotics,” Woodward says.

Woodward said that U.S. government agencies have worked closely together to accelerate the collaboration with Kazakhstan. Through the efforts of Ruxton Villet of the Agricultural Research Service and Woodward, a formal agreement between DOE and the USDA has been established to determine the usefulness of the good bacteria from Kazakhstan.

“U.S. industry is showing significant interest in this project. Wayne Farms, LLC, of Gainesville, Ga., is joining the effort to develop these products for the U.S. consumer markets, as well as those in Kazakhstan,” Woodward says.

“They realize that this could lead to attractive business opportunities in satisfying the U.S. population’s demand for safe food.”—B.C.