Big food firms get a new taste for pioneering Scottish science

Research in biological physics at the universities of Edinburgh and Dundee has opened the door to a multitude of compelling commercial opportunities

by Frank Simpson

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Major food manufacturers are beating a track to a Scottish university laboratory to learn more about ground-breaking science that could transform how mixtures involving oil, water and air are kept stable in foodstuffs and cosmetics.

“The manufacturers we are talking to are big players – household names,” said Professor Cait MacPhee, professor of biological physics at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Physics and Astronomy. Her joint research with molecular microbiologist Professor Nicola Stanley-Wall at the University of Dundee’s College of Life Sciences discovered the protein BslA and how it works.

Prof Cait MacPhee P6
Pictured: Professor Cait MacPhee

BslA has “almost endless” applications in the food, and beauty and personal care (BPC) industries, MacPhee added. “This is because many formulations involve ingredients in different phases (air, water, oil) and makers want to stabilise the product in the form in which it was produced – for instance as a well-mixed paste or cream, or maybe a foam, liquid with bubbles in it.”

 In nature, ‘Biofilm surface layer A’ to give it its full name, is produced by the naturally occurring soil bacterium Bacillus subtilis. Most bacteria in nature cluster together in communities called biofilms. In Bacillus subtilis colonies, these films are created from bacterial secretions including BslA, which coats the surface of the film to stabilise it and protect it against water that could break it up.

The Edinburgh and Dundee collaborators established the unique way in which BslA works, then manipulated the protein to successfully stabilise a range of multiphase systems in different formulations and in varying chemical and physical conditions.

They found that BslA could stabilise oil droplets in water and vice versa, opening up possibilities for the better encapsulation and release of ingredients.

“You may want to release particular ingredients in a food at a particular place in the digestive system, or at a particular time,” MacPhee explained. One example might involve the targeted or timed release of ingredients that produce a sense of satiety, feeling full, which could help to tackle obesity.

BslA attracted worldwide attention in 2015 when news broke of its potential use to slow the melting of ice cream. It is better than the traditional solution, fat, for maintaining a stable mixture of fat droplets, air bubbles and ice crystals. It can also slow the process whereby ice cream becomes gritty when stored at low temperature.

Humans’ sense of sweetness is reduced at very low temperatures, so manufacturers put additional sugar in frozen desserts. If BslA-stabilised ice cream can be eaten at higher temperatures because it melts more slowly, sugar content could be reduced. The Edinburgh and Dundee researchers were able to replace some of the fat in ice cream with BslA, as the protein is a better stabiliser.

As with foodstuffs, BslA’s superior ability to stabilise oil droplets in water and vice versa opens up possibilities for better encapsulation and release of ingredients in BPC products. “You may, for example, want to retain the fragrance of a perfume until you want it released, say when it is rubbed on skin,” MacPhee suggested.

The Edinburgh and Dundee researchers’ pitch to potential commercial partners points out that investment in BslA would be de-risked because of the protein’s wide range of applications. “It has absolute applicability in any formulation where you need to stabilise different phases,” MacPhee stressed. “This means that it can stabilise oil in water, or vice versa. They normally do not like to mix, but BslA keeps them mixed. It can also stabilise air bubbles in water.”

In manufacturing terms, it can deliver improved consistency and stability of emulsions, foams and coatings. Because of the unique way in which BslA works, it offers manufacturers a performance ‘sweet spot’, a balance between stabilising films and emulsions while remaining easy to use in production processes.

Helpfully, Bacillus subtilis is already used widely to produce food by fermentation: Natto, a Japanese traditional breakfast food made of fermented soybeans, is one example.

This means that food safety regulators will start off knowing that BslA comes from a food-grade bacterium that is already used in the food chain, and which is classified as probiotic, akin to the so-called ‘good’ bacteria in the human gut.

MacPhee could not reveal interested manufacturers’ names because of commercial confidentiality, but summarised the latest position thus: “We are talking to a number of potential partners and have had detailed discussions with a few of them. Our current focus is on those who could manufacture the product in bulk. It should be easy enough to do this; the organism is already familiar to the food industry.” Manufacturers can be shown proof-of-principle data under confidentiality disclosure agreements.

MacPhee said that three to five years is a “conservative” estimate of how long it could take for BslA to be included in foods on supermarket shelves. “It takes a long time anyway to get something into a complex formulation for food.”

The taste and ‘mouth-feel’ of food is vitally important to manufacturers. MacPhee does not, however, see this as a hurdle that could derail BslA’s commercialisation. “We are lucky in having relevant expertise in-house and elsewhere in the University of Edinburgh.”

The Edinburgh Complex Fluids Partnership (ECFP), a University of Edinburgh organisation for which MacPhee serves on the management board, has longstanding experience working with the commercial sector to solve important problems in industries such as food and drink, agrochemicals, personal care and pharmaceuticals. For example, ECFP helped a start-up company to understand how it could make wheat-free dog biscuits more crumble-proof. If a product progressing towards market has a shelf-life problem, the partnership can try to establish why the issue has arisen and how it may be solved.

Similarly, a number of techniques exist to study parameters such as the prospective ‘mouth-feel’ of a foodstuff, without having to actually put it in anyone’s mouth. “With our in-house experience, and because we work closely with industrial partners, we have been able to apply many of those tests to try to ensure that mouth-feel is not an issue with BslA,” MacPhee added.

Continuing and future research by the Edinburgh and Dundee researchers will involve more studies of bacterial biofilms. “They can be a benefit to industry, but also a real pain,” MacPhee said. “Understanding why they are formed, and how you can disrupt them, is very important in the industrial biotechnology (IB) space, for example.”

Findings from this research could also be a boost to Scotland’s ambitions in IB. The Scottish Government’s National Plan for Industrial Biotechnology 2015- 2025 aims to support the increase of the number of IB companies in Scotland from 50 in 2015 to 80 by 2020, and 200 by 2025, with turnover increasing from £230 million last year to £400 million by 2020, and £900 million by 2025. A state-funded Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre was set up in Glasgow in 2014 to bridge the gap between education and industry.

 Innovate UK, a non-departmental public body that reports to the UK government’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, last year received applications for business funding from the Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst (IBC) programme. Funding for integrated R&D projects for the processing and production of materials, chemicals and biotechnology was to range from up to £250,000 for feasibility studies and to £10 million for experimental development.

£2.5 million was also available for business-led feasibility studies of new, biofilms-related products and services. It is part of a UK national programme supporting projects from companies of any size, working alone or with partners. It allows organisations with biofilm problems to engage effectively with universities, research organisations and other companies to develop novel solutions.

Edinburgh Research & Innovation, (ERI), the research commercialisation support and advisory arm of the Uni versity of Edinburgh, is assisting the commercialisation process for BslA.

“They help in a multitude of ways,” MacPhee said. “Various funding streams are available to early-stage commercialisation coming out of the academic sphere. In the university’s case, accessing these requires the backing of ERI. They have successfully supported us in a number of those proposals to bring money into early stage-research for commercialisation.”

ERI is the first point of contact for industry in its dealing with University of Edinburgh academics. “They have many more contacts than I do, so they can find the appropriate people to speak to in various sectors and companies,” MacPhee observed. “ERI would have the first meeting and I would come in for the more detailed, later discussions.”

MacPhee’s involvement with commercially relevant science started around 12 years ago, so she has seen universities’ understanding and competence in the commercialisation field evolve over more than a decade. “It is a lot smoother now,” she commented.

 ERI also facilitates the putting together and filing of patent applications to protect the commercial rights of discoveries made by university researchers.

A patent filed as a UK Priority Application in August 2014 covers the use of BslA as an ingredient in multiphase formulations of all kinds, and in all business sectors. “The production of BslA in Natto, which we have detected, is a byproduct of the fermentation reaction, whereas our patent revolves around using ingredients independently in whatever formulation,” she explained.

Asked what would constitute a successful outcome for BslA, MacPhee, who was made a CBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours List in recognition of her services to women in physics, said simply: “Just seeing it in a product would be very satisfying. It would be nice to see something right through and in the market.”