“Bacteria are ubiquitous on Earth. They have existed for 3.5 billion years, while us humans have been around for 200,000 years only!”, enthuses Hassina Ait-Abderrahim. Microscopic living organisms, bacteria can appear in various forms (e.g. spherical or rod-like forms). Although their genetic heritage is made up of one single chromosome, bacteria have discovered ways to continuously evolve, to develop metabolic pathways and to perform other tricks to survive. For example, they gather in communities, attaching themselves in this way onto surfaces inside biofilms2. “They have had this almost Darwinian intelligence to adapt themselves, because they are opportunists,” explains the expert. “They have also contributed to our evolution, and we have learnt to live with them in a relative symbiosis.”
From ancestral fermentation techniques to industrial techniques
“Our ancestors already used bacteria, without knowing it, to preserve food for longer,” explains the scientist. The natural fermentation of milk, linked to the presence of lactic bacteria and yeasts in the environment, contributed to their fame. “To nourish themselves, bacteria use, as a source of carbon and energy, very diverse sugars, such as lactose, which they break down into simple sugars and transform thanks to their enzymatic equipment into different compounds, such as organic acids, CO2 and ethanol. They are also able to break down the proteins present in their environment into the peptides and amino acids necessary for their growth but also as aroma precursors or so many other known features, some we have yet to discover!” enthuses the scientist. “
Even though fermented food dates back 8,000 years, it still represents a large part of what we currently eat. Bread, yoghurt, cured meat, sauerkraut and cheese are just some of the fermented foods that today find a place on our tables. The natural process of fermentation has been industrialized, thanks to Louis Pasteur’s observations of “living ferments” under the microscope. “The Agri-food sector has since made the link between the presence of these microorganisms and food preservation”, explains Hassina Ait-Abderrahim, “isolating bacteria known as homofermenters, which produce lactic acid, and other heterofermenters, which convert the sugars into lactic acid, acetic acid, ethanol and CO2”.
A key global player in fermentation for more than a century, Lesaffre and its researchers have developed generations of starters – smart mixes of bacteria and yeast – that adapt to culinary trends and to our clients’ needs, because “fermentation also gives food organoleptic qualities such as aroma, taste, texture, flavor and consistency.”
Bacteria, an endless source of applications
The power of bacteria does not end with fermentation. And the industrial sector understood this quickly! Certain bacterial compounds, like exopolysaccharides, have anti-tumoral properties. In addition, genetically modified bacteria are now used to make pharmaceutical products like insulin and antibiotics.
Long considered as mainly pathogenic agents, nowadays bacteria are working towards regaining their stripes, with research into intestinal microbiota. “The 100,000 billion bacteria in our intestine positively influence our organism, strengthen our immune system, fight against pathogens, and even modulate the concentration of the happiness hormone, serotonin!” enthuses the expert.
At the environmental level, “Bacteria also possess useful anti-fungal properties to fight plant parasites, instead of using pesticides”. Another area of interest is waste treatment. When exposed at length to a contamination like an oil spill, bacteria develop the capacity to degrade the contamination and even to assimilate it!
Finally, these microorganisms can also be used to reduce industrial carbon footprints. Thanks to bacteria, methanization enables the production of biogas from effluents, which can then be used as a source of energy.
Working together to better nourish and protect the planet
Aware of the huge potential of bacteria, Lesaffre, an expert in starters, now wishes to position itself as a key player in the field of bacteria. “We have dedicated an R&D platform to bacteria and also a biodiverse bacteria collection targeting 10,000 strains by 2021,” explains Hassina Ait-Abderrahim, who directs the platform’s activities.
The Group is focusing on targeting certain bacteria to enrich its health and well-being product range. In particular, Lesaffre wishes to contribute to rebalancing intestinal flora, strengthening the immune system, improving vaginal health and strengthening bone health. “2,000 years ago, Hippocrates declared, ‘let food be your medicine!’” Today, this phrase makes perfect sense, comments the expert, for whom, “the wealth of possibilities for bacteria seems infinite”.
The Group also intends to diversify and explore how bacteria could be used to maximize the potential of the planet’s resources. With regard to lactic bacteria, Lesaffre’s culture collection also contains sporulating bacteria, some of which can improve agricultural yields by soil dephosphorization, while others can reduce the use of pesticides. Above all, the women and men of Lesaffre cherish their aim to ‘work together to better nourish and protect the planet.’
1. Biotope: a relatively stable living environment, defined by a certain number of geological, geographic and climatological characteristics that determine the conditions of life for beings that live there.
2. Biofilm: multi-cellular community, often symbiotic, of microorganisms, sticking to each other and to a surface.
When bacteria and yeasts achieve symbiosis
Natural starters comprise a heterogenic population of lactic bacteria and yeasts living in symbiosis3. “This reciprocal association between the two populations in fermentation contributes to the development of other properties attributed to bacteria,” explains Hassina Ait-Abderrahim. “Such as the production of aroma precursors, or the production of exopolysaccharides that give bread its softness. In this symbiotic environment, certain lactic bacteria can even develop anti-fungal properties.” By playing on this symbiotic association, and on the existing diversity of bacteria and yeasts in natural starters, Lesaffre works on the potential of its natural fermentation solutions to meet each client’s needs, in sectors as diverse as food, health, nutrition, and the environment.