New NTU unit to study food safety, boost health

Uncovering the mix of bacteria that lies in the human gut and finding ways to manipulate its composition to improve health will be among projects undertaken at a new research centre at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

NTU provost Freddy Boey officially announced that the NTU Food Technology Centre (Naftec) has been set up at the opening of a four-day conference on food safety yesterday.

The centre will receive $1.5 million in funding a year from NTU, and $1.7 million in government funding over the next three years.

Prof Boey said: "We are starting to understand the importance of the different relevant entities in our food, such as microorganisms and active biochemical ingredients, and how these entities interact with our bodies."

Professor Jorgen Schlundt, from NTU's school of chemical and biomedical engineering and Naftec's director, said there are 300 to 500 different microbes in the gut that can influence a person's weight and contribute to development of diseases like diabetes.

Researchers at the centre will analyse faecal samples and compare their composition of microbes. "Eventually we will know which type of food is better for our gut, or if adding a certain microbe into a person's diet will help him avoid getting fat or diabetes," he said.

The centre will develop ways to track the source of microbes that cause food poisoning, using advanced sequencing technology.

According to the World Health Organisation, almost one in 10 people fall ill every year from eating contaminated food, with 420,000 dying as a result.

Sequencing a microbe gives a unique fingerprint. The goal is to have a global database of these by sequencing microbes at different points of the supply chain, which will involve working with government agencies like the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority.

"If you find the fingerprint of the microbe that gets someone sick in the production chain...you can direct your efforts to improve food safety in these areas," said Prof Schlundt.

The centre, located at the school of chemical and biomedical engineering, aims to recruit 20 full- time researchers and scientists within the next year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline 'New NTU unit to study food safety, boost health'. Print Edition | Subscribe