Research at the University of Huddersfield into microbial production and metabolism has influenced both the food industry and government policy. This work has led to the adoption of new techniques to produce fermented products and has made a major contribution to the safety case for the disposal of nuclear waste, highlighting the economic and environmental benefits of underground storage. This has impacted on commerce and society through the development of new ideas about how ‘probiotic’ bacteria can protect people from pathogenic organisms, providing new insights into which probiotic strains to include in yoghurts. In the nuclear industry an understanding of how bacteria can metabolise polysaccharides and their decomposition products is being used to assess the safety of their storage facilities.
Probiotic health benefits
An understanding of the potential health benefits associated with probiotic bacteria has led to an increase in commercial interest in functional foods containing good-bacteria (probiotics). Researchers in the University’s Department of Biological Sciences have focused on relating the biological activity of the polysaccharides secreted by probiotic organisms to their structure. The work also allows researchers to correlate variations in structures with changes in the sequence of the genes responsible for their synthesis. Ultimately, this will allow food manufacturers to screen different probiotic bacteria for similar genetic markers.
Collaborations in this research area have included academic partners from Europe and Scandinavia and industrial partners from France (Rhodia Foods). The Huddersfield team coordinated European projects with Rhodia to select biological cultures with the ability to produce polysaccharides and to establish methods for producing functional polysaccharides from lactic acid and bifidobacteria.
The team has also been working closely with colleagues at the Instituto de Productos Lacteos de Austurias (IPLA) in Spain. This team are recognised as one of the leading government-funded research groups studying the biological activity and genetics of bifidobacteria, and have worked with the University to publish work describing both the gene sequence and the structure of an exopolysaccharide (EPS) from a bifidobacterium.
Understanding nuclear waste decomposition
Microbiological research has also helped to inform policy around the development of nuclear waste facilities. The University’s researchers have studied gas and small molecule generation during microbial-catalysed cellulose decomposition, helping to further understand key factors in the safety case for proposed underground nuclear waste repositories. Radioactive and highly flammable gases were identified which can pose a threat to the safe storage of intermediate and low-level radioactive waste if directly released into the environment.
The team also studied the production of small organic molecules that can potentially escape into the geosphere, this research has led to the production of a computational model for estimating gas production during the decomposition process. This work has been crucial to Ontario Power Generation’s proposed Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) Project for Low and Intermediate Level Waste at the Bruce nuclear facility in the Municipality of Kincardine. Computational modelling has helped to demonstrate the likely effects of microbial decomposition in the years following closure of the proposed facility. If approved, such facilities will bring about not just major environmental benefits but considerable economic impacts in the form of career prospects for a major new industry.