Science, It’s What’s for Dinner

New BTI member David Baumler aims to develop novel biotech for protecting local and global food supplies.

By Estelle Smith

If it’s on the shelf at the grocery store, it must be safe to eat… right? Hopefully, that answer is yes. Yet a dazzling array of microorganisms — not all of them friendly — enjoy human grub in our gastrointestinal tracts as much as we do. How can science help to guarantee the safety of our foods and bodies against an army of opportunist bugs?

David Baumler, a faculty member in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition and new member of the BioTechnology Institute, develops technologies that could improve the safety and nutritional value of the food supply chain, both locally in the Midwest and across the world. “I go where the problems facing people are,” says Baumler, who hopes to engineer solutions for major health and economic problems.

Baumler’s background includes biochemical investigation of everything from pathogenic foodborne bugs and biofuel-producing bacteria to ancient microbes that thrive in the most extreme conditions on the planet. “I cross paths with BTI faculty who work on topics like bioremediation and fermentation,” says Baumler. His wide-ranging experience allows him to ask questions that cut across academic disciplines, often with promising results.

For instance, Baumler was the first to build a computational model of the metabolism of a pathogenic E. coli strain based on approximately 20 bacterial genomes — a small number compared to those available today, but an important technological leap at the time. “We tied together all the genes that produce reactions within the organism,” says Baumler. “We could then simulate almost an entire cell on a computer.” He continues to build computational models in an ever-expanding variety of contexts and organisms.

Such models provide insights that lead directly to important applications. “We look at all the information in the genome to figure out what an organism really needs to grow better,” says Baumler. If you know what an organism needs to survive, you can provide it with an optimized environment when you want it to flourish. Alternatively, you can remove what it needs if you want to kill it.

Some of Baumler’s current projects tackle the challenge of warding off prevalent food-borne pathogens like Listeria and Salmonella. One recent project even revisited a malicious
microbe from the middle ages. European collaborators dug  up corpses of bubonic plague victims and sequenced bacterial genomes trapped in their teeth. Based on these
genomes, Baumler built a model that helped reveal fatal secrets buried in the past.

Another of Baumler’s projects aims to cultivate new probiotics that could keep livestock healthier. Minnesota’s beloved turkey flocks, for example, haven’t been plumping up properly — to the tune of 30 million dollars per year in lost revenue. Baumler hopes to fatten the birds by replenishing an important bug that appears to have flown the coop of their microbiomes.

Dairy, another economic boon for the Midwest, has its own set of microbial mishaps. Milk quality and flavor can be compromised by germs, but when and where do they enter the product chain? In parallel with a massive initiative launched by IBM and the Mars candy company, Baumler will spearhead an effort to record comprehensive genetic data on dairy products at every stage of their journey from the cow to your fridge. This information could enable food makers to detect problems as they arise rather than after the fact.

To address epidemic malnutrition, Baumler also mines his personal collection of over 400 varieties of chili peppers in search of vitamin-rich (but not too spicy) varieties. “Chilies are a culturally accepted food in every country in the world,” he says, noting that 30% of all children suffer from insufficient vitamin A. “We could breed new strains and share seeds with everybody around the world to alleviate vitamin deficiencies.”

Baumler —  who has even been known to dress in a chili pepper outfit and sing the praises of his favorite plant — is a big picture thinker with an animated approach to teaching and research. “For me and my students, BTI is opening doors for networking, new information, new funding opportunities, and new collaborations,” he says. “As a BTI member with a background in food science and nutrition, I hope to bring new types of research questions to other BTI members, as well.”