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One-stop shop: introducing Teagasc’s Bioprocess Innovation Suite

Photo of Olivia McAuliffe

Following years of planning, Teagasc Moorepark is set to launch its new Bioprocess Innovation Suite – a one-stop shop for bioprocess development, optimisation and scale-up. Leading the project is Principal Research Officer at Teagasc Food Research Centre Olivia McAuliffe. Here, she gives us an insight into this exciting expansion and why it’s so significant for Teagasc’s research platform and the wider industry.

Bioprocessing – a process that uses living organisms such as bacteria, yeast, fungi or animal cells to generate a desired end product – is hugely important for society. It is key to the food, pharmaceutical and energy sectors and several emerging industries and technologies, including the production of renewable biofuels such as biodiesel, therapeutic stem cells and new vaccines. It has also been identified as a key technology in helping to develop solutions to sustainability challenges in the food sector.

In the food industry, the process is often referred to as fermentation. The end product can be a consumer food product, such as yoghurt or cheese, or a compound that is produced by an organism and then purified, e.g. lactic acid, antibiotics or vaccines. Producing these products or compounds at scale requires very carefully controlled growth conditions for the organisms, and specific instrumentation is needed for that purpose.

Teagasc has been planning to expand its bioprocessing capabilities since as early as 2018, beginning with the successful submission of a grant proposal to Science Foundation Ireland seeking funds for new bioprocessing equipment. Acting as lead investigator on the submission was Principal Research Officer Olivia McAuliffe. 

Olivia is a graduate of University College Cork where she received a PhD in Molecular Microbiology. She completed a research fellowship in the USA working on the then-emerging field of genomics of food microbes before taking up a role with Teagasc in 2003 developing new biotechnology tools for food-based microorganisms. She currently leads a research programme on cultures, fermentation and biotransformation at the Teagasc Food Research Centre.

Olivia, how did your initial request for new bioprocessing equipment turn into the development of a Bioprocessing Innovation Suite? 

Science Foundation Ireland awarded us funds in late 2020, and with co-funding from Teagasc we set about procuring the new equipment. We realised a custom-designed space would be needed to accommodate it, so capital funds were designated for a laboratory refurbishment. In early 2021, my team members and I began the design of the Bioprocess Innovation Suite. The work commenced in late 2021, and is expected to be finished in the coming months. It has been really great to see all aspects of the project coming together. 

What does the suite consist of?

The new suite comprises a 64sqm fermentation laboratory that houses a state-of-the-art high-throughput microfermentation system, allowing 48 1mL fermentation reactions to run in parallel. We also have a range of lab-scale bioreactors, from 200mL to 20L. Then, linking with our partners at Moorepark Technology Ltd, we will have up to 270L at pilot scale. This wide range will offer seamless scalability from early bioprocess development to pilot scale production.

How will this new equipment support different research areas?

It will be used to innovate in the development of new fermented food products and the production of new food ingredients, as well as in exploiting the Teagasc bacterial culture collection for new and exciting uses for organisms. Another key area is the use of bioprocessing in the recycling of co-product or waste streams from the food processing industry.

What might the end products from the suite be?

Bioprocessing offers endless possibilities as every organism produces a range of metabolites that could be of value depending on the end user. Some that are of interest to us are natural food ingredients for texture, flavour and colour, protein-enriched fermented food products, bioplastics and biogas.

How will you use the new facility to carry out your own research?

A key research area for my team is harnessing the use of microorganisms to convert waste streams from dairy and plant processing, which would otherwise be discarded (causing damage to the environment), into useful products.

Finding the right combination of waste stream and microorganism can be time-consuming work, but the new facility will allow us to run many parallel experiments with lots of variables at high-throughput scale, providing a step-change in our capability to deliver innovation in this area.

How significant is this suite for Teagasc?

It is hugely significant for Teagasc as it provides for us, for the first time, access to the full value chain of bioprocessing capability, increasing our research in the fermentation and biotransformation space.

It will help to expand our capabilities, particularly in the utilisation of low-value substrates and waste streams, a key element of developing sustainability in the food system.

Is there anything innovative about the suite that sets Teagasc apart from other institutions?

What sets our facility apart from others is the link between the research scale in the Bioprocess Innovation Suite to the pilot plant scale at Moorepark Technology Ltd. This, along with access to other research infrastructure at Teagasc – such as downstream processing, next generation sequencing and flavour chemistry – will ensure that researchers have access to a wide range of high-end analytical capabilities to complete their research.

Will it only be accessible to Teagasc researchers?

No, our wider research community will have access. As will our academic and industry collaborators, providing a national platform and new opportunities to further collaborate in new research projects.

Once fully up and running, the suite will also be available as a direct service model facility to new collaborators and clients.

Having led this project, what are you most proud of?

I am hugely proud of the Teagasc team who worked with me throughout this project. From the researchers to the buildings and facilities staff, I could not have done it without their invaluable help and support and a steer in the right direction from time to time!

What are you most excited about regarding the suite being officially launched?

I am looking forward to the opportunity to meet new users of the facility and the possibilities that this will present for building new partnerships to tackle the major issues facing the food system.

Up close and personal

What’s your favourite animal?

Our 13-year-old collie, Cailín; she’s a huge part of our family.

If you hadn’t ended up in research, what other job would you have wanted to give a go?

As a kid, I wanted to be an airline pilot. I have taken some flying lessons since, but I think it is best left to the professionals!

What are you most proud of professionally?

I am currently Senior Editor for the Dairy Foods section of one of the leading dairy journals, and I am also Deputy Chair of the Standing Committee on Microbiological Hygiene at the International Dairy Federation. It is always a hugely proud moment to be invited to participate at an international level in your area of work.

[pic cap] Olivia McAuliffe has led the project to launch Teagasc’s new Bioprocess Innovation Suite