PODCAST: APC Microbiome Ireland celebrates 20 years of transformative science

By Nikki Hancocks

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | Marharytamarko
Getty | Marharytamarko

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Pioneering microbiome research institute APC Microbiome Ireland is celebrating 20 years of research addressing some of the biggest global challenges to face mankind.

Launched in 2003 at University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland, APC was one of the very first microbiome research institutes worldwide and is now one of the largest globally after developing into a world-renowned research and scientific leader in the field.     

APC carries out pioneering microbiome research, so far producing more than 3,000 peer-reviewed scientific publications which have led to advancements in tackling some of the most pressing societal challenges of our time, including antimicrobial resistance and the threat of superbugs, the burden of chronic diseases, obesity and malnutrition, mental health and healthy ageing.    

The team’s Principal Investigators have received no less than 164 significant distinctions and awards, and they have 13 researchers featured on the 2023 Clarivate’s highly cited Researcher list  

“When we started 20 years ago, microbiome science was kind of a fledging science and since then has really transformed a number of disciplines," Prof Paul Ross, Director at APC Microbiome Ireland and a founding member of the institute, told NutraIngredients. "It’s really only in the last couple of decades that we've realised bacteria don’t normally live on their own but live in large complex communities that affect our lives in so many ways.” 

The growing economic impact of APC Microbiome Ireland is now calculated at €73.7 million annually, up from €65 million five years ago. What's more, the research centre supports more than 500 jobs in Ireland each year and returns €6.56 to the Irish Economy for every €1 invested.     

The Institute has been particularly successful in collaborating with industry to develop science-based probiotics and other products. With more than €72 million in research funding secured from industry, APC has attracted foreign direct investment from 11 companies that only have a footprint in Ireland because of APC.     

“We’ve noticed in more recent years more of an interest coming from nutrition and food industry," Prof Ross said. "From major international powerhouses, companies like Nestle, Fonterra, Kraft, Kerry, and I think that comes out of a realisation that this food pharma interface could be a very, very lucrative one...."

The institute has also spun out five companies that now employ 100 people in Cork and its founding SME partner, Cork-based PrecisionBiotics Ltd was acquired by Danish giant Novozymes in 2020.    

“[Microbiome science] can address some of the major global problems we face as human beings, from food shortage to the increase in disease in western societies and so on,” Prof Ross added.

He noted that microbiome science can look to tackle the growing issue of antimicrobial resistance, which is estimated to lead to the death of 10 million people per year by the year 2050 if left untackled. 

“We work a lot on bacteria competition in the gut, looking at when bacteria compete by producing small peptides that kill other bacteria that compete in the same environment," he said. “We’re trying to develop alternatives to antibiotics where we can target specific pathogenic bacteria without causing the collateral damage that you have with antibiotics.” 

The team is also investigating the potential of animal feed based solutions to reduce methane production in agriculture. 

“We’ve been developing silage additive—probiotics if you like—that will take out these methane producing bacteria in the microbiome, and so far we have significantly reduced methane production through this additive.” 

CMK15122023_APC_20 Years_067
From left: Science Foundation Ireland Dr Finnian Hanrahan; Vice President for Research and Innovation UCC Prof John Cryan; Head of the College of Science, Engineering and Food Science, UCC Professor Sarah Culloty; Teagasc Director Prof Frank O’Mara; UCC President Prof John O'Halloran; An Tánaiste, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence, Mr. Micheál Martin; APC Microbiome Ireland Director Prof Paul Ross; Chair of APC Governance Board and CEO of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland Dr Pamela Byrne

Boosting microbiome awareness  

The institute also runs an outreach programme aiming to improve education where it "preaches" the benefits of microbiome health at public events and within schools, Prof Ross explained.    

It also recently commissioned the first national survey to establish the level of microbiome awareness in the country. Perhaps disappointingly, the survey found that over one in three respondents were aware of the term "microbiome", with a higher awareness (over 50%) in the 20-29 year-old cohort.  

However, over half of all respondents were familiar with having a gut flora, while 85% of respondents were aware of the term probiotics. Encouragingly, about half of respondents stated they were taking steps to keep their microbiome or gut flora healthy.  

Almost two thirds of respondents said they believe that the microbiome plays a role in medicine while only 38% believed there is a connection with environmental sustainability. 

An encouraging 66% of respondents felt it was important invest in science and research into microbiomes.   

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