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51: Food innovation at the heart of future health concerns

The Enzyme and Cellular Engineering Laboratory (GEC), a CNRS-UTC joint unit, combines fundamental and applied research around two main themes. The first, called the "green" theme, concerns everything related to plant metabolism and bioresources with concrete applications, such as the replacement of mineral oils by lipids produced by plants, or the use in nutrition and health of phytosanitary-compounds known for their antioxidant and anti-tumoral properties, such as betanine. The second, the "red" theme, aims to explore the issues of bio-mimetism and biomolecular diversity, in particular by designing biomolecule banks or creating polymers with molecular fingerprints whose recognition performance is comparable to that of antibodies. Innovative research with fields of application ranging from health, to cosmetics and agro-food.

51: Food innovation at the heart of future health concerns

GEC Lab reporting to UTC, the CNRS and University of Picardie

Professor of Biochemistry at UTC, Karsten Haupt has been Director of the Enzyme and Cell Engineering (GEC) laboratory since 2012, reporting to the CNRS Institutes of Biological Sciences and Chemistry, plus the UTC and the University of Picardie Jules Verne (UPJV), Amiens.

A word about the GEC team?

GEC is a smallish UTC research unit, comprising about thirty tenured staff - 20 lecturer-cum-research scientists and technical staff, engineers and lab technicians. However, depending on a given year and on the projects and funding available, there are between 60-70 personnel, including PhD and post-doc students.

What are the GEC's major research areas?

The unit has recently been restructured around two main themes. All of the unit's projects fit into one of the two themes, with a constant concern to provide answers to technological challenges, societal issues and scientific questions. The first, called the "green" theme, concerns everything related to plant metabolism and bioresources. Among the objectives is to have plants produce unusual molecules or produce them in small quantities. One of our goals is to avail of plants producing lipids that would eventually replace mineral oils. Hence our involvement in PIVERT, an Institute for Energy Transition (ITE) including industrialists, selected to benefit, as of 2011, under the Government incentive programme “Investments for the Future. We are also interested in polyphenols, which have properties that could be of interest for the agro-food industry, and we are carrying out more cross-disciplinary projects such as studying the interaction of plants with their environment - how to protect them from stress, from the action of micro-organisms or, for example, how to optimise the use of ligno-cellulosic residues once the oils have been extracted.

The second, the "red" theme, focussing on the issues of bio-mimetics and biomolecular diversity, with two complementary approaches. In the first case, our objective is to design biomolecule libraries containing antibody fragments, peptides or nucleic acids. Currently, we have libraries containing more than one billion molecules from which we are able to select bio-compounds of interest, capable of interacting with an identified target to neutralize or detect it. In the second case, we are interested in the development of materials dedicated to molecular recognition using a "tailor-made" approach. In other words, to create polymers with molecular prints with recognition performance levels on a par with that of antibodies. Here again, the fields of application range from health to agro-food, but can also be integrated into more fundamental studies. We have more and more cross-disciplinary projects, which is an indicator of the coherence of our themes. We are also relying increasingly on rationally designed tools.

Can you cite some practical applications?

We have many applications, so let me just mention a few. In the food sector, for example, we will use sensor-equipped polymers to detect problematic molecules in real time, such as the presence of anabolic agents, antibiotics and endocrine disturbers, pesticides in excess of thresholds or even diseases such as cystitis in cows. In the health field, the aim is to produce antibodies that can be used in immunotherapy. This field seems to be of particular interest to the pharmaceutical company Sanofi, with whom we have already worked as part of a European project.

In your opinion, what are the strong points of GEC?

In terms of international visibility and recognition, I would cite, among other things, metabolic engineering of oilseed plants, our expertise in molecularly imprinted polymers and our knowhow in banking and breeding.