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Discovering unexpected talents in the Biodiscovery Platform

The mission of UNLOCK (to unlock microbial potential) can be compared with the quest for a dream team, like in sports. One way to do this is by looking for new talents, under very specific conditions, on a large scale. This approach illustrates the research done at our Biodiscovery Platform. 

By the UNLOCK team / May 30, 2022


Technical difficulty
Suppose you are looking for (new) potential; where do you start? In sports, talents are often clearly inherited from parents: An ex-professional cyclist introduces his son or daughter to the bike and it soon turns out the kid excels at cycling. The same is true for some microbes. For instance, bifidobacteria were identified in the feces of breast-fed infants. When these microbes were fed breast milk components in the lab, it turned out they were champions in degrading breast milk. From these bacteria we know their talent is genetic. This does not go for all cyclists – and bacteria – though.

Screening for suitable candidates

So, imagine a talent scout  in a large group of youth cyclists looking for cycling talent. Based on the scout’s experience with existing professional cyclists, the scout knows more or less what qualifies as suitable attributes. It also depends on the type of rider needed: a climber, sprinter, time trialist, etc. After the first selection rounds, the final candidates are individually screened for the attribute of interest. From the microbes that we know today, we also more or less know which characteristics are valuable: which food does a specific bacterium need and what does it produce? And how fast? One of the advantages of the Biodiscovery Platform is that, even in a heterogenous mix of microbes, it allows the individual screening of microbes at a large scale.

Selecting under very specific conditions

In some cases, talents are not so apparent from the start. Some cyclists, for instance, perform better at high intensity or altitude, when (blood) oxygen levels are low. The same goes for microbes: Some  thrive best in the absence of oxygen! You can imagine that these diehards are hard to investigate in a lab where scientists are dependent on oxygen. The Biodiscovery Platform allows the cultivation of microbes without oxygen at a large scale. This feature helps to unlock new microbial potential.
Picture of a cyclist in the mountains, resembling the purpose of the Biodiscovery Platform to discover new microbial talent under specific conditions (e.g. high altitude in cycling)
Picture of a cyclist in the mountains, resembling the purpose of the Biodiscovery Platform to discover new microbial talent under specific conditions (e.g. high altitude in cycling). Photo by Dmitrii Vaccinium via Unsplash.

Putting together an initial team

As mentioned in our previous blog microbes do often not operate alone and even depend on each other. The Biodiscovery Platform allows for a first screening of the newly identified microbes as a team. This team can be taken directly from natural environments, such as the human intestinal tract or soil (“natural microbial communities”). Alternatively, the team can be composed manually by selecting individual microbes and putting them together. This is what we call a “synthetic microbial community”. Both natural and synthetic microbial communities do allow for the discovery of new or unexpected talents.

Testing the team

Once an initial team is established, the Biodiscovery Platform can help to address the following questions:

Integration with the other platforms

After the initial screening, the most promising teams and their potential can be further investigated in the Parallel Cultivation Platform, where the teams can be compared under different conditions with the Parallel Cultivation Platform, which we will exemplify in the next blog. Alternatively or subsequently, different teams can be combined in the Modular Bioreactor Platform, as explained in the fourth blog.
Illustration of the Biodiscovery Platform. Illustrated by Haans Design.
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