When set out with our product vision, we had a rough idea of where we wanted it to head towards. It was only by considering the implications of our products beyond the lab that our product became what it is now. Our final product is a result of months of work in the lab, but beyond that, it also took shape with successive input by industrial experts, ethics experts, and visits to factories. We believe by going through this iterative process of improvement we came up with a product that is relevant to the dairy industry, safe to use and has a positive IMPACT for every party involved, from the dairy industry, consumers, and the environment to the general public. In short, we implemented the information we received from our interviews and other sources in the following ways:
We decided to make a detector that does not come into contact with the end product.
We decided to try to detect the presence of the SK1 bacteriophage since its especially resistant to cleaning measures.
We designed an on-site, easy-to-use detection cartridge with redundant layers of security.
We developed a model which can determine the likelihood of spacer incorporation for specific bacteriophages. Another model is able to predict fluorescence emissions and population dynamics depending on different infection scenarios
We added a hydrogen peroxide compartment to the cartridge to ensure safe disposal.
We thought of ways to implement our product both in a current scenario and a future scenario.
Simon van der Els works for NIZO, the Dutch Institute for Dairy Research. Simon's research focuses on bacteriophages and CRISPR-Cas. We send him our project proposal and called to discuss the details. He was able to give us a better insight into the growing realization of the problem of bacteriophages in the dairy industry. We also talked about feasibility, which steps should be working relatively straight out of the box and which steps would be really challenging to accomplish. It was pleasant to have someone specialized in the subject talking with us and giving us an idea of where we should start.
At the 12th LAB (Lactic acid bacteria) symposium in Egmond aan Zee, we also met with Simon. We were able to talk about our research and ask technical questions, such as choosing suitable promoters for our system.
DSM - 27 June
DSM cultures are one of the main providers of dairy starter cultures worldwide and have more than 100 years of experience in the dairy industry. As they could potentially benefit from our detection device and have knowledge about bacteriophages we decided to get in contact with them. During a phone conversation, we spoke with Thijs Kouwen, senior scientist and expert on bacteriophages and starter cultures. We learned that bacteriophage detection is performed by both major dairy factories and companies that provide starter cultures, such as DSM. There is less of a need for a fast bacteriophage detection system in the dairy industry and, indeed, bacteriophages cause a significant disruption to fermentation processes. DSM provides a free service of bacteriophage testing for their customers, for which they mainly employ plaque assays and at times qPCR. Thijs mentioned that these tests take quite a lot of time. A detector that could be used on the factory floor would be a valuable addition current modes of detection.
According to Thijs, an ideal detector would have the following characteristics:
Can differentiate up to 700 species of phages.
Has a detection limit of 100 phages per ml.
Has a detection time of 30 minutes to one hour.
A detection limit of 10.000 – 100.000 would be useful as well, because that is when bacteriophage level will cause significant impairments.
We are currently working very hard to ensure that our product meets these specifications as closely as possible. Thijs mentioned that dairy companies probably would not use a GMO, as they do not have the expertise, permits and do not want to be associated with GMO use. Especially when it is a risk of GMO contact with the final product. Due to these concerns, we started considering an approach that does not require direct contact of the detector with the final product.
Unilever - 13 July
We had a phone call with Jan Willem Sanders, a science leader in Microbiology at Unilever. Unilever does not primarily focus on dairy products, but Jan gave us some good starting points for our project with questions such as:
What is the detection limit of the method? What sample size is needed?
Can different species (or strains) be detected in parallel?
To what level of identification can the method be used: genus-species-strain?
Can the method quantify live cells in the presence of dead cells of the same genus-species-strain?
Is the method reliable enough to detect microbes in a complex food matrix (without enrichment), such as cheese, margarine, soups, powders containing spices, etc. and their ingredients?
How would you validate the method? How does it compare to existing methods?
How could you modify the method to allow for immediate readout (current methods take half a day up to multiple days)?
How could you modify the method to allow for readout on a factory floor (current methods require a micro/molecular lab)?
How could you modify the method to allow for read out by non-trained people (current methods require experience in microbiology/molecular biology)?
After this conversation and considering these questions, we decided to focus on an easy-to-use device that could possibly be used on the factory floor by someone without a synthetic biology background, hence we proposed a cartridge which would have several layers of containment and very easy-to-use interface. Of course, such an application gives rise to other questions, such as safety and regulation requirements. We debated this thoroughly on our safety page.
Dairy Factory - 10 August
When designing a product targeted towards the dairy industry, what better thing to do than visiting a dairy factory ourselves? As committed iGEM-team members, we wanted to experience dairy processes at work, on site. To this end, we were kindly invited by a major dairy company's technologist to get a tour of a cheese factory. Prior to our tour, we received safety instructions. Afterwards, we were given the opportunity to ask questions about the effect bacteriophages have on starter cultures. We learned how a bacteriophage infection is measured and how they proceed once a detection occurs. When the fermentation process is severely disrupted, either by bacteriophages or other factors, the cheese will be sliced into blocks and used for other purposes. She informed us on the occurrence of bacteriophage infections, but according to her due to strict cleaning requirements, the impact has been greatly reduced. Through this excursion, we were able to envision the sort of environment where our final product could potentially be used and directly contact the people who would work with it. As we discovered later on while visiting their innovation centre, SK1 bacteriophages are especially resistant to cleaning so we decided on using this bacteriophage for our proof of concept detection.
Arla - 22 August
We contacted Arla in Denmark via Skype and got some advice from Harry Barraza on how to communicate our project to the general public. For instance using the word ‘virus’ on the homepage of our WIKI could immediately scare people off. So it is imperative to use the word phage or bacteriophage and explain what is meant by this. We implemented this, and some other suggestions they made on our wiki. Two researchers from Arla, Sander Sieuwerts and Valery Gutsal, who also joined the conversation, were quite interested in our project and had some questions prepared. Besides that, Arla also decided to sponsor our project! We got to know which are the most often occurring phage infections and how they currently detect them.
Dairy Research Center Wageningen - 23 August
We visited the Research facility of the same major dairy company as the factory in the Netherlands to discuss our project with a Senior Nutritional Scientist, who specializes in bacteriophages. Since our project focuses on detecting bacteriophages which can negatively impact various dairy production lines, we were quite excited to hear the opinion of a senior bacteriophage research expert. He kindly elaborated on the issues he is facing during his research and provided us with helpful advice for our project. He pointed out that the use of GMOs in the dairy industry is very risky. Even though our detection device will not get in contact with the product, the factory still needs a permit to use it. This permit is accessible by the public and as the use of GMOs in Europe is still very controversial, they do not want the risk of an NGO mounting a public campaign against them. For these reasons we were not allowed to name the company or the person, we spoke to on this day. Our detection device could, however, be useful in their research laboratory. Current detection techniques are not able to detect new bacteriophages. If we could implement a way that new bacteriophage sequences can be obtained, this would go a long way in selling our device to a potential customer. Since this is not implemented in our current design due to the strict timeline which we are working with, we have taken this into consideration while thinking about the future scientific outlook of our project. This conversation let us to consider how we could make our product most attractive to food industries. We started looking into legislation about the use of GMOs outside of a lab. On our future outlook page we came up with a potential solution for this problem.
Wouter Ghering (RIVM) – 6 September
During our Skype call with Wouter Ghering (RIVM), who deals with biosensors and its effect on the environment, we came across a certain German scientist and the company ARSOlux that was able to work with a GMO biosensor in a moving truck. During our talks with dairy companies, we learned that getting a permit in order to work with GMO’s in factories is a big threshold limiting innovate new biotech approaches, primarily due to their public perception. To this end, we were interested if it would possible for a biosensor to be used without the dairy company having to request a GMO permit. Therefore, the information that Wouter provided us with was extremely helpful and had quite a big IMPACT on how we would like to see our product used. In this scenario, we envision a dairy company that will have their samples picked up by a mobile element in which our product, IMPACT, is used to detect whether bacteriophages are present. This way, the dairy company is not associated with the use of GMO’s. Wouter also suggested that we talk to Rob Duba, a senior policy officer on biotechnology at the Department of I&E. We established communications with ARSOlux in order to analyze the logistics of our product potentially being used in a moving truck, you can read about that on the future outlook page.
Christian Hansen - 13 September
As part of considering the implications of our product and finding a potential market niche for it, we contactedThomas Janzenfrom Christian Hansenand video chatted with him on the 13th of September. The company mostly deals with starter cultures and tests for the presence of bacterial phages for their customers. We discovered that the current go-to method for their company is performing a plaque assay and, when required, they also resorted to using qPCR. Their test takes 2-3 days if everything works properly. Thomas mentioned three points that were of particular relevance to us. First that our product would be useful if it takes a few hours and is able to detect similar phage concentrations as current technologies do. We took this into consideration and are designing a final product which will (hopefully) only take a few hours. Secondly, the device will be more useful if it can detect a specific viral strain. By integrating different plasmids into our system or adjusting the plasmid for different strains, it will be able to detect specific strains. Thirdly, our device could also be used on the factory floor. Currently, European regulations prevent our device from being used on the factory floor as it contains GMO's. We however still took this into consideration by designing an on-site detection system which could potentially be used in a factory, in case the legislative hurdles are changed in the future. We designed our product as safe as possible as if it would already be allowed to use in a factory without special permits. Based on this conversation, together with the impressions we received from conversations with other factory specialists and our factory visits, we decided to broaden our horizons and look beyond the dairy industry in Europe. We tried to contact companies in some other continents which have less strict GMO standards, however, these companies never responded to our inquiries.
Laboratory facility dairy company - 4 October
During our cheese factory visit, we were informed that whey samples are being sent to an external laboratory facility for phage analysis, we definitely needed to visit that as well! The technician of the factory kindly established contact with an analyst working in the lab. During the day we met multiple persons working at the laboratory. They do weekly bacteriophage testing for dairy factories located in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Mostly they resorted to using either spot assays or PCR detection technology. We presented our project, which aroused their curiosity flavoured with a whisk of hesitance. "Why do we want to know exactly which bacteriophage is in the milk? We only care about the fermentation, did the phages influence that or not." "Is it really possible to make your product cheaper than the current tests?" We elaborated on the benefits of having more information about the phages in a factory. For example, this information might lead to varying start cultures which are less susceptible to a certain kind of bacteriophage. We reflected on these questions and tried to implement solutions to soothe their worries.