Necessary food safety interventions can be improved through insights gained from an innovative computational modeling method known as techno-economic analysis, shining new light on the effectiveness of novel biologics production.
Foodborne illness emerging from antibiotic-resistant bacteria is massively threatening existing food production, food safety practices and global health. Reports reveal that 1 in 10 people in the world experience foodborne disease, often with severe distress, and resulting in more than half a million deaths and billions of dollars in annual economic losses1. While current antibiotic interventions have undeniably served to elevate conditions in the food processing industry, the number of reported incidences of foodborne illnesses are placing this once pioneering biotechnological method under scrutiny.
Fortunately, University of California, Davis researchers, together with industry partner Nomad Bioscience GmbH, are developing a novel alternate intervention to assure the safety of our food. Professor of Chemical Engineering Karen McDonald, and Doctoral candidate Matthew McNulty are performing a techno-economic analysis of plant-produced antimicrobial proteins to assess their effectiveness as food safety agents. Endolysins are the class of plant-made antimicrobials under study—highly effective naturally occurring proteins natively produced by bacteriophage viruses that directly target specific pathogens2. Simply put, endolysins are the proteins used by certain viruses to attack bacteria. The usefulness of such antimicrobial proteins against pathogenic antibiotic-resistant bacteria has successfully been tested in animal models3,6, and presents a promising alternative to traditional antibiotics as the ultimate weapon against bacteria.
To fully evaluate the viability of endolysins as an antibiotics alternative, the economic context must be considered. This is why Professor McDonald and her colleagues are developing a rigorous techno-economic model of the plant-based lysin production process. The researchers are using SuperPro Designer® by Intelligen, Inc., a simulation software that facilitates modeling, evaluation and optimization of integrated processes within production facilities to forecast associated financial requirements.7 With SuperPro Designer®, variables such as the type of operations, link between operations, and costing for equipment, supplies, time and personnel can be fine-tuned to generate a thorough assessment of the necessary resources and processes for premier manufacturing operations.
While the use of techno-economic simulation is common among numerous manufacturing industries, ranging from biofuels to pharmaceuticals, Professor McDonald and her team are newly developing the set of tools needed for the analysis of a plant-produced food safety agent. She reveals “we are using the SuperPro Designer platform as a tool to access the economics of this novel production process for food safety”, and to “evaluate how the cost of goods and total capital investment vary with [endolysin] expression level and production capacity”.4 This information is critical for commercialization of endolysins and provides insights into the business risk and the cost of infrastructure required to implement the technology in developed and developing countries. Doctoral candidate McNulty notes that “what you can get out this tool is a lot”. By adding typical agricultural system variables into the software, such as common reagents or plant growth nutrients, a whole production simulation can be created. Costs for each of the variables can be determined, giving the overall annual operating costs. McNulty explains that “you can then assess this information and in response, improve operations accordingly.” 2
Technology is undeniably changing how food is grown, processed, distributed, and even eaten. The seed, soil, and tractor tradition of yesteryear’s agriculture industry is evolving into the smart, dynamic, 3.0 production we are witnessing today. The future of agriculture has arrived and looks to be powered by techno-economic simulations, IoT sensor and mobile technology, genetic and molecular markers, and big data analytics5.
Professor McDonald’s industry colleague at the DT Consulting Group, Daniel Tusé, is a microbiologist and toxicologist. As managing director of the group, he applies his regulatory and commercialization insights to the project in an advisory capacity and provides a startling reminder of the world we currently live in. “Although access to a consistent supply of safe food should be an inalienable right, worldwide 1 in 8 people – including 1 in 8 Americans – are impacted by food insecurity and hunger.”1 Together, these innovators are using techno-economic modeling to provide a comprehensive evaluation of how this plant-made food safety additive will reduce the likelihood of foodborne illness from our future production facilities, without increasing use of antibiotics.
The importance of this work is enormous. The ability to build representative models of bioprocess economics will undoubtedly leverage innovative and transformative solutions across food and health.
Beyond this project, Professor McDonald enjoys teaching a capstone chemical engineering and design course to equip students with creative, big picture thinking to fully understand the design process and scope of product commercialization.
Innovation Institute for Food and Health
When asked what inspired him to pursue this field of study McNulty said, "to summarize I would say the classic wow factor of science. I love biology and the mystery of what is inside of all of us, along with this desire to give back to the community."
Innovation Institute for Food and Health
Tusé, Daniel. “Antimicrobial Proteins Made in Plants as Novel Food Safety Interventions.” DEB/ECH 294 SEMINAR, 9 Feb 2018, 1022 Life Sciences, University of California, Davis.
McNulty, Matthew. Research interview. 18 Jan 2018.
Schmelcher M, Loessner, M J. “Bacteriophage endolysins: applications for food safety”. Current Opinion in Biotechnology, Volume 37, 2016, Pages 76-87, ISSN 0958-1669, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copbio.2015.10.005. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S095816691500155X)
McDonald, Karen. Research Interview. 15 Dec 2018.
MIT Technology Review. “High-Tech Food Chain: Data-driven, robotic and mobile technologies are transforming how we grow, process, distribute and buy our food.” MIT Technology Review, Business Report. Jul-Aug 2015, Pages 1-15. (https://www.technologyreview.com/business-report/high-tech-food-chain/).