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Food Bioscience: Gut Health

Gastrointestinal health is paramount to our overall health and wellbeing. Teagasc has a sizeable programme of research dedicated to gut health. Our research focuses on both the microflora of the gut and bioactive compounds that can modulate gut health through immune stimulation, inhibition of intestinal pathogens or the reduction of cell proliferation (anti-cancer). One third of colon cancers are thought to be diet related. Our gut health research programme is carried out in association with UCC as part of the Science Foundation of Ireland funded Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre (http://apc.ucc.ie).

An area of particular interest in relation to gut health involves the investigation of the microbiota of infants, in effect the developing gut (in association with Cork University Hospital). We also investigate the undesirable changes in the gut flora that may occur in the elderly.

Manipulating Gut Flora using Probiotics /Prebiotics Probiotic bacteria are becoming increasingly popular as food cultures, in parallel with a heightened awareness of their contribution to good health. In an effort to gain a more complete understanding of the role of probiotic bacteria in human health and disease prevention, and to develop new therapies and functional foods based on probiotics we actively engage in the development of process formulation technologies for enhancing probiotic stability and functionality, for functional food development.

The human gut contains about two kilogrammes of bacteria. These bacteria are critical for normal development of the intestine and for defence against infections. The control/programming of the gut microbiota is of particular interest in infants and the aged. Part of our gut health research programme investigates novel antimicrobial compounds produced by and isolated from the gut microbiota, and how these can be used to control undesirable populations within the gut.

Perturbances in gut flora – gut pathogens. A dedicated pathogen laboratory facilitates our research on Clostridium difficile, an opportunistic gut pathogen that proliferates following antibiotic therapy. This pathogen is receiving ever increasing media coverage and has become more problematic in hospitals and care homes than the well known MRSA. At present we are working on two antimicrobial compounds with potent anti-C. difficile activity which may form the basis of functional foods designed to eliminate this gut pathogen. An alternative approach to the elimination of this gut pathogen is through the use of bacterial viruses (bacteriophage) and in this regard we have identified, and are currently characterizing such a virus.

Health-promoting Bioactives in the gut. The probiotic strain Lactobacillus paracasei Lb338 is our flagship probiotic culture and has been investigated at a research and applied level. The strain is in use for the manufacture of commercial probiotic cheese. We have evidence that suggests that this strain can naturally inhabit the infant intestine, which is of particular significance for the development of probiotic infant formula. The genome sequencing of this strain is currently underway.

In the gut health research programme, we actively ‘mine’ milk for bioactive components which are assessed through a range of bioassays which determine their potential to reduce colon cancer risk and their influence on immune responses. Bioactives demonstrating potential to positively influence gut health are studied at a mechanistic level to determine their precise mechanisms of action. These bioactives are assessed in animal and clinical trials and developed into functional food with validated health claims, for delivery to consumers.