A yoghurt to help prevent diarrhea?

Today, an international team of microbiologists published a paper in Microbial Cell Factories about a novel starter culture which allows farmers in developing countries to locally produce a probiotic fermented milk. The production of this yoghurt drink has started in Africa and improves health and wealth for the people on this continent. Here to explain more is author Remco Kort.

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About seven years ago I started to think about using my skills in microbiology for a project, which would contribute to the benefit of humankind, as part of a development human talent training program organized by The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (TNO).

Inspired by Prof Gregor Reid’s closing lecture at the first Beneficial Microbes Conference in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands in May 2008, I shaped the seed crystal for a research and development program to bring probiotics to the developmental world.

Soon after, I discussed this plan over a beer with my high-school friend Wilbert Sybesma in a terrace in Zürich. He was, as it just happened, looking for an interesting topic for his MBA study, and wrote a social business model, which won an award by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung for the best strategic marketing plan of the year.

Why is this important    

After this first success, Wilbert and I founded the Yoba for Life foundation in Amsterdam, in September 2009. As a next step, we scanned the literature for the most relevant probiotic bacterium to address intestinal health problems in Africa.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 21% of the deaths of children of less than five years is caused by diarrhea, of which 29% is associated with the rotavirus.

It should be noted that in Sub-Saharan Africa, 21% of the deaths of children of less than five years is caused by diarrhea, of which 29% is associated with the rotavirus. We identified a number of independent clinical studies showing convincingly that daily consumption of a particular amount of L. rhamnosus GG stimulates gut health and reduces the incidence and severity of rotavirus-associated diarrhea.

However, the probiotic L. rhamnosus GG was patented by Goldin and Gorbach in 1985 and inaccessible for people in developing countries. In order to facilitate access to this health-beneficial bacterium in the African setting, we developed the concept of generic probiotics and published an opinion paper in Trends in Biotechnology on the free use of world’s first generic probiotic strain called Lactobacillus rhamnosus yoba 2012.

This strain cannot be distinguished from the L. rhamnosus GG strain, and accordingly all health claims can be transferred. In analogy to generic drugs, the probiotic bacterium can be freely used as long as the patent is expired and protected brand names will not be used.

Working to create the yoghurt

Although L. rhamnosus yoba 2012 is an effective probiotic strain, it is by itself not able to grow in milk as it cannot degrade lactose and has limited proteolytic activity to degrade casein.

In collaboration with the Dutch company CSK food enrichment we selected an auxiliary bacterium, Streptococcus thermophilus C106, isolated from an Irish artisanal cheese, which allows the yoba 2012 strain to increase in numbers in milk, as the enzymatic activity of C106 generates galactose from lactose and peptides from casein, which both can be consumed by yoba 2012.

One remaining challenge was the genetic stability of the L. rhamnosus strain. This is an intestinal isolate, and propagation of the strain under different conditions in milk, may lead to the loss of piliation, mediating adherence to intestinal mucosal cells, a property that is reported to be linked to its probiotic activity.

Thus, in collaboration with the Willem de Vos lab – many years ago the PhD and MSc-supervisor of Wilbert and mI, respectively – we observed a minor, acceptable loss of piliation in Lactobacillus rhamnosus after two rounds of fermentation.

Now we were ready to produce the starter culture by freeze-drying both bacteria into a powder with long-term preservability. The Yoba starter was packaged in easy-to-handle sachets.

Now we were ready to produce the starter culture by freeze-drying both bacteria into a powder with long-term preservability. The Yoba starter was packaged in easy-to-handle sachets.

The great result of all this is that one gram of powder, containing about 10 billion bacteria, can be used to produce up to 100 litres of yoghurt drink within two days. We set up local distribution points who sell the sachets at cost price of about USD 0.80.

A great success

Two years after the introduction in Africa, we can conclude that the concept has been a great success. We started with the help of one our first partners, the foundation SYPO and joined their yogurt project, which led to the first Yoba production in a small village in Uganda, close to lake Victoria.

To date, with the help of more than ten volunteers and a partnership with Heifer International, the starter cultures, containing the two strains described in the research paper in the open access journal Microbial Cell Factories, have been used more than 50 dairy cooperatives and local producers in Uganda.

The success is in the first place a result of enthusiastic and entrepreneurial Africans that produce their own drink yoghurt.

Thinking of this, the success is in the first place a result of enthusiastic and entrepreneurial Africans that produce their own drink yoghurt. They all use their own brand name and sell their probiotic yoghurt on the local market.

The African producers are also responsible for marketing and distribution. This already resulted in sales of over 8000 liters of probiotic fermented milk per week in mostly rural areas in Uganda.

As a result, they could raise their income as an outcome of a reduction of milk spoilage and the added value of a drinking yoghurt, which is about three times the price of a liter milk. The locally produced probiotic food has benefitted over 25,000 people, including producers and consumers with the potential to reach hundreds of thousands in the near future.

Not only in Africa, but also in other parts of the world we are trying to raise awareness for functional fermented foods. As part of the team working for Micropia, world’s first microbe museum, we organized a fermented food dinner last night, where the dessert was a dutch Hangop prepared by a top chef and not to forget (!), the bacteria in the Yoba starter. Delicious!


 

Researchers from the following institutions contributed to the development of the new Yoba starter culture: The Yoba for Life Foundation, The Micropia microbe museum, VU University Amsterdam, Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), University of Helsinki (Finland), University of Western Ontario (Canada), Makerere University (Uganda) and the Dutch company CSK food enrichment.

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Jugsharan Virdi

As a professional microbiologist having lot of experience in the subject I have known very well strains of Lactobacillus such as GG and Shirota being used as very effective probiotics almost all over the globe. Even yeasts like Saccharomyces boulardii has proven to be a very effective probiotic which is commercially available.
I am very glad to read about Yoba strain, the combination of two bacterial strains complementing each other in their metabolism to give a near perfect Yoba probiotic.
The long list of several research institutions and the efforts of Yoba Foundations to bring to commercial use such a useful probiotic is really laudatory and an inspiring story for microbiologists.
Jugsharan Virdi, Professor of Medical Microbiology, University of Delhi South Campus, New Delhi 110 021, India

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