Interview

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Employee Interview

 

Coline Gerritsen

Scientist at Winclove

Coline has been working for Winclove for 8 years now, focusing on scientific innovation. We asked her about the innovative side of bacteria.

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    Coline Gerritsen

  

How did you come to join Winclove and what is your field of work?

I joined Winclove in 2008, to do my PhD research in the field of molecular microbiology. During my PhD, I investigated the genomic and functional characteristics of novel bacteria dedicated to life in the intestinal tract such as the genus Romboutsia. After obtaining my PhD in 2015, I continued to work at Winclove as a scientist at Winclove’s Innovation Department. I am currently researching the genetic and functional characteristics of the bacteria in Winclove’s strain collection. The genetic characteristics of a bacterium can tell us something about its functional properties. We want to know more about these properties so we can select the best strains for each specific indication. 

Don’t you ever feel you’ve seen enough of bacteria?

No, on the contrary – new bacteria are discovered all the time! Roughly 20 new bacteria are discovered every month. We keep finding new bacteria thanks to improved methods for isolating and viewing them. We’re also isolating bacteria from places we once thought to be sterile, such as breast milk. And every newly discovered bacterial species has its own unique properties, so there is still much to learn about these organisms. 

 

 

How do you tell one bacterium from another? They’re so small!

In the past, bacteria were described and categorized in groups (species) based on their morphological characteristics, which means by looking at the outward appearance of an organism. However, nowadays bacteria are mainly categorized based on their genetic characteristics. DNA sequencing techniques are used to create a genetic fingerprint of bacteria. If bacteria have the same set of genes, they are considered identical, whereas differences in gene sets are indicative of distinct species. 

Based on these genome sequence analyses we now encountered the problem that we sometimes have to conclude that bacteria we used to think to be very similar to each other based on morphology, can in fact genetically be very different. For that reason, bacteria are sometimes renamed to re-categorize them. Think of it as reordering your cutlery drawer. Instead of ordering your cutlery based on their shape, forks with forks and knives with knives, you can also separate them based on the type material they are made of, your expensive silver dinner set separate from your plastic camping set. In the end the only thing that matters is that you know where to place back an organism once you found it in a place you did not expect to find it. Or in this cutlery example, the only thing that matters is that you know where to place back a spoon that you found in the wrong drawer because your roommate cleared out the dishwasher, 

 

 

During her PhD research, Coline discovered and named two new bacterial species:
Romboutsia ilealis
Romboutsia hominis
Both bacterial species are found in the human GI-tract, where they contribute to gut health.

 

I can imagine people are not too happy about all these name changes. Is that true?

To answer this question, I first would like to mention that grouping of microorganisms in species does have a practical use, because it helps us to discuss about important groups of microbes. For example, medical treatments, and responses to food contaminations and bioterrorism are largely based on species-level identification of the microbes involved. However, it is important for all fields of (life) sciences to use the same categorization of microorganism. This to make sure we can have interdisciplinary collaborations. In the end the choice to change the name of a bacterium is always a balance between medical, industrial and scientific interests. But indeed, for certain professions it is more difficult to adapt to name changes than others. However, it can be a matter of life and dead. For example, in the medical world, treatment is based on identification of the pathogen. And as a name change of a pathogen can lead to confusion, this may lead to the wrong treatment. 

 

 

 

Under favorable conditions, a single bacterium can create 16 million duplicates of itself over an 8‑hour period.

 

Can you give us an example of a bacterium that has been given a different name?

For example, it has long been known that Clostridium difficile (C. diff), a widely known pathogen, is from a genetic perspective not a true Clostridium species. In the past, all anaerobic, spore-forming bacteria were called Clostridium, just based on these 2 properties. However, many genetic differences have been found between the different bacterial species within this group. At a certain point it was proposed to change the name of Clostridium difficile to Peptoclostridium difficile (P. difficile). However, this gave a big response from the medical world, because this meant that all their guidelines, textbooks, etc. had to be changed. In 2016, the discussion was settled on a compromise, a name change to Clostridioides difficile, which meant that at least the commonly used abbreviation ‘C. diff’ can continue to be used. Also in the probiotic field, bacteria are constantly reclassified. For example, in the past we have brought a strain to market as Bifidobacterium infantis, but we now know, based on genetic analyses that this strain is in fact a Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis. We all have to deal with these name changes.

What about the innovative side of bacteria?

Bacteria also continuously undergo genetic changes. The bacteria we work with multiply at a fairly high pace, duplicating themselves on average approximately every 20-30 minutes. Small mutations take place all the time and there comes a point when these are so numerous that the bacterium has become genetically different, creating a new strain or even a new species. This new species can then also possess different functional properties. For that reason, Winclove maintains a “mother” bank of our bacterial strain to contain the genetic properties of our strains. For every strain production run we use the old mother culture as a seed to make sure that the bacterial cells in the final product posses the same functional properties as the cells that have been used in our studies and that have shown certain beneficial properties.  

 

 

Do you use probiotics yourself?

Well, I currently do not have any health issues, so I don’t feel the need to use probiotics. I do recommend my family and friends to take probiotics when I hear they have symptoms we have a solution for.    

 

 

Can you tell us about any future innovations in Winclove’s bacteria?

We are always looking for new bacterial strains that have unique properties. One of the things we’re looking into at the moment is if we can use bacteria to bind certain metals – bacteria that have detoxifying properties, in other words. Metals are not excreted by the body, but accumulate in the liver. If we can help the body get rid of them using metal-binding bacteria, this would be a worthwhile health 

  

 

  

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