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Final Report Summary - CORNUCOPIA (Yeast biodiversity as a source of innovations in food and health)

Yeasts are among the major, if not the most important food production microorganisms. Especially the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae has been used for centuries for the production of wine, beer and leaven bread. The increasing trend of using pure starter cultures has during the last decades strongly decreased the diversity among the employed yeasts and even the strains within a species. However, besides the well-established yeast examples, there are over 1.500 known non-conventional species and tens of thousands of yeast isolates. This constitutes a huge, untapped reservoir for potential innovation in the food sector in the form of new species and strains with exceptional tolerance to extreme process conditions, species producing novel flavor compounds or new traits like secretion of proteins, adhesiveness, antibacterial properties, etc.

The strategic aim of the EU ITN project Cornucopia was to explore the academic and industrial potential of largely untapped resources of non-conventional yeast species to increase general knowledge on these organisms, and to enable development of new or improved beverages, food products with novel and unique characteristics, as well as new probiotics with superior health performance. Cornucopia, started in February 2011 and has now been training a new generation of thirteen young scientists (eight are females and five males, nine are originally from EU countries and four recruited from non-EU countries) focusing on less studied yeasts with interesting traits. This contributed to the general knowledge on yeasts and applications in the food and health sectors. Cornucopia was built upon academic laboratories and three leading European industry partners, from Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, and provided a unique environment to develop strong academia and industry oriented careers for our research fellows. Cornucopia used in-depth training in major experimental technologies for yeast research and the industrial application of innovative ideas. Our young researchers have developed novel species-specific molecular, genetic and post-genomic tools to find out which genes determine yeast superior traits. They also “domesticated” new isolates so that they can be easily handled in the laboratory, and developed scale-up cultivations for applied purposes. Apart from research training, our young researchers received training in generic skills, focusing on scientific writing, patents, innovations, oral presentation techniques, etc., and attended courses/workshops to prepare them for careers in EU food and biotech industry.

Cornucopia objectives were to: (i) screen a large collection of non-conventional yeast species (and the already published data) in order to identify yeasts with specific unusual properties, (ii) select within each species the best strains displaying superior performance, (iii) characterize the new yeasts phenotypically and genetically as a potential source of superior and/or novel genes for strain improvement, (iv) optimize the strains using the knowledge and tools obtained and to develop non-GMO strains for use in the food sector, (v) promote faster evolution of the desired traits employing longitudinal experiments under selective conditions that will be run in fermenters, (vi) evaluate the most promising strains from laboratory-scale to pilot-scale fermentations, (vii) build a network of young scientists, receiving in-depth training in major experimental technologies used in yeast research, in commercialization of novel yeast strains, in business strategies in the food sector as well as in various skills for personal career development.

In short, all proposed Cornucopia objectives and deliveries for the training and management part have been fully achieved. For the research part, all goals and objectives, except for one sub-work package in the overall package 4, were achieved.
The research part of the Cornucopia project was delivered in five work packages (WP). In the start, the selection and screening of a large collection of non-conventional yeast species for the traits of interest and subsequently of collections of strains of each selected species (WP1 + WP2) were in focus. During the last part of the project Cornucopia, the focus was on the genetic analysis of the novel or extreme traits of interest in the selected strains form the first project period: which genes/enzymes are behind the traits/compounds (WP3). The project worked also on the development of further improved strains (WP4) and small-scale and pilot-scale fermentations with the best strains (WP5).
Two major results from the project are being evaluated for patent protection and for their potential for commercialization. These are the use of non-conventional yeasts for baking and the use of novel genes underlying stress tolerance of non-conventional yeasts for improvement of the yield and productivity of bioethanol production, as well as the production of green chemicals. Multiple patent applications are foreseen. One book edited by two principal investigators of the project, with several contributions from Cornucopia members and 23 peer-reviewed articles have been published or been accepted in the period up the 30th April 2015. A considerable number of publications are in different stages of submission and preparation.

Through the below listed network activities and many exchanges and visits of the young researchers to laboratories of different partners, a strong network has been created. This network has the potential to boost both scientific excellence and business innovation during the coming years. A substantial number of network level course activities to achieve the training objectives have been completed: (i) course on yeast biodiversity and the first presentation of young researcher projects (Utrecht, November 2011); (ii) course on managing and exploitation of innovations, patents, spin-off companies, negotiations with industry partners, investors and generic skills such as writing, art of communication and career planning, and a workshop to strengthen these generic skills, and the second young researcher project presentation (Lund, May 2012); (iii) practical course on beer brewing, aroma analysis, chemical analysis employing HPLC, GC and MS, artificial gut, presentations of two companies, and single cell analysis tools (Copenhagen, May 2012); (iv) course and symposium on yeast polygenic traits and the third young researcher project presentation (Leuven, November 2012); (vi) a course on food safety and mammalian cell model to study probiotics (Valencia, June 2013); (vii) a course on scale-up fermentation, oenology and sensorial analysis (Milano, September 2013) as well and the fourth presentation of young researcher projects; (viii) the symposium on non-conventional yeasts and presentations of the results of our project by all Cornucopia fellows took place as integral part of the ISSY31 in Vipava in October 2014 (ix) and shortly after this, the young researchers presented their projects, results and overall experiences of the Cornucopia project at the final project meeting in Vipava in October 2014.

Of the 11 Ph.D. students, 2 did already receive their Ph.D. degree, the rest is anticipated to defend their thesis work in 2015, with 2 students also in 2016 and early 2017. 2 post-doctoral researchers successfully concluded their training period in the project.

The following management and administrative activities should be mentioned here:
Four annual meetings, including the final meeting, were held 2011 in Utrecht, 2012 in Leuven, 2013 in Milano and 2014 in Vipava. Following a short struggle against an aggressive cancer, Prof. Jure Piskur, the coordinator of the Cornucopia project at Lund University died in May 2014 ( ; After Prof. Piskur, Dr. Wolfgang Knecht took over the coordinator role.

If you want to know more:

Dr. Wolfgang Knecht
Lund University
Molecular Cell Biology & Lund Protein Production Platform
Sölvegatan 35, SE-22362 Lund, Sweden
phone: +46 46 222 7785

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