In an exclusive interview to DT Next, the TED speaker and partner at brewing yeast major Lachancea LLC, talks about her fascination with fermented foods, like the dosa and her areas of research in microorganisms that have led to the spawning of a whole new range of commercial applications
We are only beginning to understand how microorganisms interact with us and other animals and how these interactions can shape our behaviours and bodies. Microorganisms influence the smell we give off, the way we digest food, the way our immune system interacts with the world. Microorganisms even effect the smell of our breath! By understanding them, we can use that knowledge to make a healthier, happier, and more sustainable world.
Flash forward in R&D
I'm focused on the microorganisms of food. These microorganisms can make our food more nutritious, healthier, tastier and shelf-stable. These microorganisms help us make: dosa, beer, wine, kombucha, to name a few. But we rarely think about what microorganisms are responsible for these foods. Different microorganism species can create different flavours, aromas, and nutrition. There are thousands of these species, yet we haven't even discovered all of them! In the future we will want to know what microorganisms are responsible for our food the same way we currently want to know what vegetables go into our salads, or what ingredients are in our packaged foods. Currently untapped microorganisms on this planet will be the source of the foods we eat in the future.
A discovery called India
I was particularly astounded by the beauty of Hampi having read The Ramayana as a child. Traveling to India reminded me of the great potential of humans to innovate and grow. I am particularly inspired by India’s rich cultural heritage and by the new innovations in science and technology coming from here. As someone who is fascinated by the diversity of fermented foods in the world, I am reminded of the wonderful meals I had in India.
Patented beer brews and novel antibiotics
Working with Novobiotic Pharmaceuticals, we identified antibiotics that come from soil microorganisms. Such antibiotics are necessary, as older antibiotics are becoming less effective at killing certain infections. Working with scientists at North Carolina State University, we looked for microorganisms that could make beer. Right now, nearly all commercial beer is made with only a few microorganism species. We found a relatively unknown species that lives in wasps. It has never been used to make commercial beers. We discovered these microorganisms could make sour/tart beers faster and better than any known species. The microorganism has now been commercialised and is used in making sour beers in the US, saving brewers substantial money. It has historically been a harder beer to make. We've subsequently found insect-associated microorganisms that are making breads with new flavours and aromas.
The future will include tapping into that other 90% of microorganism species and finding out how they are uniquely suited to help us. A promising example includes microorganisms that have been shown to reduce anxiety in mice. We will work more with microorganisms to solve the problems we currently face – from pollution to disease, even bad smelling clothing and bland food.
Women in STEM (Sci/Tech/Engg/Math) in India
Some of the greatest scientists, thinkers, engineers, and innovators I have ever met have been female. By increasing the number of females in STEM fields, and by increasing the diversity of STEM fields in general, we are all going to benefit from the truths they find and the technology they develop. A recent Harvard Business School Review article highlighted how diversity in groups can drive innovation. It is therefore critical for us to increase participation of more diverse groups in our STEM fields if we want the best technology of tomorrow. I know I want that better future and I know women will be a significant part of it.
The market for new antibiotics and medicines are in the billions. That is just one way microorganisms can help us. Microorganisms are being looked at as new sources of fertilisers, medications, plant health promoters, new food and beverage flavours, and as a source of chemicals like biofuels and biodegradable plastics.
The Kombucha market alone is worth $700 mn in the US and this is only one food, produced by a few microorganisms
Dr Anne Madden is one of the speakers at the 8th edition of TEDxGateway which takes place on February 4 in Mumbai