Eagle Genomics’ Sven Sewitz outlines how a truly data-driven partnership between biology and technology will help companies looking to innovate in the food and nutrition space.
It has become increasingly apparent that the human microbiome plays a critical role in all aspects of health, from metabolic conditions and infectious disease through to patient response to chemotherapy – even overall mood and wellbeing.
It is little wonder, then, that there is increased interest in the life sciences and food sector in understanding this hidden ecosystem of microorganisms coexisting inside and outside our bodies and our environment, which carries out essential processes such as the processing and breakdown of food and associated nutrients in the gut.
Knowing this, researchers want to develop functional foods and nutrition solutions targeting the restoration of an altered microbiome, as well as architecting novel probiotics that meet specific nutrition requirements. And with increasing interest in the gut microbiome and its links with disease, health and wellbeing, the number of probiotics and other microbiome-restoring formulations has surged in recent years.
This is because the microbiome can be a vector for the discovery of highly-useful functional ingredients, such as micronutrients and novel probiotic strains with specific health-promoting roles, which can be formulated as over-the-counter (OTC) products. Other OTC products supporting sports nutrition, the promotion of sustainable weight loss and metabolism management solutions based on microbiome targeting are also gaining traction. Plus, foods and ingredients that modulate and restore the gut microbiome have moved to the forefront of the nutraceuticals and food and beverage innovation landscape.
The question is how?
Opening the data analytics mystery box
Identifying product opportunities for microbiome-based solutions and benefits can only be done by applying a network-centric view to the datasets, called ‘network science,’ in combination with advanced analytical tools. This is because the multi-omic big data wave resulting from complex biological systems is too tough a nut to crack without a more sophisticated understanding and application of the microbiome than we currently have.
Gaining such a deep understanding is a challenge with conventional approaches. Finding a way to break down all the complex and large datasets relating to the microbiome has been a significant barrier to deeper functional understanding and identifying causal relations.
Significant wasted time and effort associated with working with unreliable data, along with siloed and outdated processes difficult to scale up to further stages of development, have bedevilled far too much new food research so far. Teams struggle with data quality, storage, process, easy FAIR compliance, integration and analysis, as a Visioneers study recently showed. It has been reported that scientists spend on average 40% to 80% of their time just finding, categorising, organising and validating input data sets.
The tough realities of multi-omics data management demonstrate the need for technology and platforms that can handle these challenges and provide valuable outputs. These platforms must enable data wranglers, including scientists, data scientists, product markets, researchers, members of legal and compliance and beyond, to fully understand and digest outputs. There is a significant desire and need in the market for a connected computational platform, that combines analytics, data exploration and standardisation and is at the same time easy to use and scales across many business cases and scientific questions.
The good news is that such platforms suited to these challenges are becoming available. Key to these advances is better ways of working with connected data. Innovators see automation and artificial intelligence (AI)-based platforms that perform contextualised data capture, curation and reporting on microbiome data as being genuine game-changers.
As a result, AI and machine learning tools are beginning to be integrated with microbiome analysis platforms to develop microbiome-modulating food and beverage products that can prevent and manage a wide range of diseases. The results of this AI-based analytics approach can be highly predictive: analysis of gut microbiome data can be used to predict disease susceptibility and assess individual metabolic responses to food, for example.
The results can also be personalised, with work commencing on sequencing and analysis of individual gut microbiomes to develop specific nutrition and dietary recommendations. Opportunities that arise from such data being tractable include better analysis of the gut microbiome, highlighting associations between phenotypic traits such as inflammation, fitness, obesity and corresponding changes in microbiome composition, which can be integrated with network analysis to identify novel strains that can be used as probiotics.
AI-enabled algorithms coupled with microbiome profiling platforms can provide personalised diet recommendations for specific requirements and can assist in novel probiotic formulations in sports drinks and supplements. Other opportunities include developing affordable nutrition (eg. microbiota directed foods) for lower-income groups at a higher risk of malnutrition. Ensuring nutritional interventions (eg. with essential micronutrients) in early-life diets can help in preventing later deficits that burden healthcare systems with long-term interventions.
Finally, there is evidence of a strong link between immunity and microbiome composition. AI and next-generation sequencing technologies are already exposing highly-promising truly microbiome-based therapeutics and functional ingredients.
The hard work to do this has already begun – and in many places
There’s a growing body of market experiences and trends that backs this up. Cargill Health Technologies, a recently-spun off division of the agricultural giant, is using this data-driven approach to start optimising its supply chain through understanding what makes healthier, faster growing, disease-resistant animals. By revealing relationships between microbiome data entities using relevant multi-omics data, the project aims to further enable Cargill to advance the understanding of the complex association between the microbiome and digestive and immune health in humans and animals.
DuPont’s 2011 $6 billion swoop on Danisco has been a story all about developing new microbes, but also molecules like prebiotics or postbiotics that only help “friendly” microbial species to grow. This is an approach beginning to be used more successfully in human and animal health to develop superior ingredients modulating the microbiota.
The Danone Nutricia Research and the Center for Microbiome Innovation (CMI) at the University of California San Diego recently decided to team up with citizen scientists around the world. The result is the Human Diets & Microbiome Initiative, which is now the world’s largest international microbiome citizen science programme and which aims to discover the best diets and foods on the planet that can nourish the gut microbiome by using the latest sequencing technology. In parallel, Danone North America is funding a study currently underway at Rutgers on the potential connection between the microbiome and Covid-19.
Pulling all this together, it is clear that work unlocking the microbiome via a data-driven partnership between science and technology offers immeasurable potential for arriving at solutions to challenges in human health and nutrition. Such an approach will contribute to a better quality of life for us, as well as the animals we share our planet with.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2022
World Beverage Innovation Awards – NOW OPEN FOR ENTRIES!
The awards celebrate excellence and innovation across the global beverage industry.
Don’t miss out on having your innovations recognised on a global scale.
Deadline for entries 23 July – enter now!
Don’t get left behind
Start your free Foodbev magazine trial today and join thousands of fellow industry professionals in receiving food and drink trends direct to our business.
Click here to start your free trial