Microbial dynamics along the food chain

Microorganisms make up a large part of the total biodiversity on our planet and often flow between ecosystems. In today's agricultural and food production systems, they are of tremendous importance as they can, for example, improve the smell or taste of food products or lead to spoilage. In the Micro-Tramper project, we want to understand microbial flows along the food production chain. To do so, we work hand in hand with five Austrian higher education institutions that focus on agriculture, nutrition or food production. The scientific goal is to sequence genomes of relevant microbes in food production and to decode the function of microbial genes in the ripening process of food. Students taking part in the project will collect samples from i.) family-owned facilities that are active in food production, ii.) hand-made cheeses at different times of ripening, iii.) their home kitchen and iv.) themselves. From these samples, they extract deoxyribonucleic acids (DNA) and use sequencing to study the microbial composition or ‘microbiome’. This is done under the scientific guidance of university researchers and will employ some of the latest developments in DNA sequencing. A MinION device from Oxford Nanopore Technologies, which is small and flexible, will be used to conduct sequencing at the schools. Data processing and analysis will also take place at the schools where it can be compared and interpreted together with the students. Lastly, teachers at the partner schools will be trained to be able to conduct sequencing projects on their own in the future. Communication workshops are intended to encourage students to share their research and present it at various events, including online micro-parties and micro-flash mobs. In addition, a song about the importance of preserving microbial diversity will be created. Based on the collected data, students will be able to i.) evaluate the established hygiene measures and discuss improvements for their family facilities, ii.) re-think food loss in their own household and reduce it together with the family and iii.) better use disinfection as a hygiene measure. Students can then recognize the importance of microbial diversity, understand challenges posed by microbial flows along the food production chain and be well-prepared for the use of hygiene measures.

The scientific value of this project lies in the detection of microbial genes that are essential for resilience and toxicity in farms, as well as in understanding microbial interaction in ripening processes of fermented food. Building on the existing curricula, the MinION sequencers acquired through the project should expand the possibilities for schools to integrate practical research in their teaching and generate interest about microbiome science among teachers and students. Even after the end of the project, the sequencers will remain in the schools for continued use in the classroom. Further, the partner schools will connect and stay in contact well beyond the duration of the project.

(Photocredit © Thomas Suchanek)