Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Heterogeneity in spores of food spoilage fungi

This project intends to provide the required knowledgebase for the design of novel mild intervention protocols to prevent fungal food spoilage.

2016 - 2020
Arthur Ram
TiFN project in the research theme Microbes and Functions

prof. Dr. H.A.B. Wösten - Utrecht University
Dr. J.  Dijksterhuis, Dr. J. Houbraken - Centraal Bureau Schimmelcultures
dr. H.M.W. den Besten - Wageningen University 

At the moment, a significant part of food spoilage and food waste can be attributed to fungal contamination and spoilage. Food preservation methods like sterilization and salt addition reduce spoilage enormously. However, consumers prefer minimal processing of food to maintain taste and nutritional composition, which leads to increased risk of fungal spoilage. Therefore, new food processing protocols are needed.

Food production should be increased by 70% to feed the human world population in 2050. Reducing post-harvest food spoilage could significantly contribute to this challenge. At the moment, 25% of the food is spoiled, a significant part due to fungal contamination. Fungal food spoilage can be found in all food categories. For instance, Aspergillus niger and Paecilomyces variotii are important spoilage fungi of fruits and processed foods, respectively, while Saccharomyces cerevisiae subsp. diastaticus is the main cause of spoilage of alcohol-free beer and beer-mix beverages. Fungal spoilage not only affects visual and organoleptic properties of food but can also result in the production of toxins.

Fungal food spoilage often starts with a contamination with spores. These reproductive structures are abundant in the environment. Experimental data strongly indicate the existence of subpopulations of spores with different levels of resistance to preservation methods. The aim of this project is to study the extent of this heterogeneity and to study the underlying mechanisms using fungal model systems. The role of the genetic background (differences in strains), environmental conditions (differences in growth conditions), and the developmental state of the mycelium and the spores will be studied, using quantitative imaging, genome and RNA sequencing as well as functional gene analysis.

Because of our expertise in using the filamentous fungus Aspergillus niger, at Leiden we will study this organism on heterogeneity of spores within a population, spore heterogeneity between populations and heterogeneity between strain backgrounds. The project will be conducted by Universiteit Utrecht; Universiteit Leiden; Universiteit Wageningen; Centraal Bureau voor Schimmelcultures KNAW and the industrial partners Heineken, PepsiCo, DuPont Nutrition & Health and Unilever.

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