The research of the Food Safety and Microbiology Laboratory is centred in 4 main research areas:
Food and water safety and quality
In terms of food and water quality and safety, the aim of the group is to study the microbiological aspects by analysing the adaptive stress response of microorganisms submitted to environmental and food-production stresses and to the formation of biofilms in food and water production/distribution environments. The detection of genes associated to pathogenicity, the study of antibiotic resistant microorganisms and microorganisms producers of microbial toxins are among the targets under the scope of the group. New safety hazards are always taken in consideration due to the continuous adaptation of water/food-borne pathogens, changes in production methodologies and in the environment, and the increase in global trade. The continuous pursuit of quality control of raw material (food or water), in-process control (food or water), quality and safety control of final products (food and water) and microbial and chemical control of cleaning and sanitation and delivery, are the non-stopping challenges to be answered.
Food, water and environmental microbiology
The lab research is focused on the characterization of microbial communities and their metabolic products, as well as environmental bioremediation. The techniques applied range from a classical approach to a more novel, information-rich methodologies, such as quantitative PCR, digital PCR or next generation sequencing.
The group has a long track record of working with bacterial populations, and recently has started also in the field of food and water virology. These challenges were approach by a multidisciplinary strategy. Due to the basic knowledge of the group in microbiology and molecular biology techniques, those are the main tools used to study food and water microbial populations, bioremediation processes, or production of microbial stains with an agricultural impact. The team collaborates with virologists and environmental engineers, agronomists, biochemists and chemists to enlarge the possibility of answering to the research gaps.
Authenticity of food products
Food authenticity is in the research agenda, as it is necessary to develop advanced analytical techniques such as molecular biology based, and a range of classic physical, chemical and biological methods, to detect non-compliant products. These problems can reach groups of food products as diverse as medicinal, aromatic, and condiment plants, honey or olive oil varieties. The ability to track any food, feed, food-producing animal or substance that will be used for consumption, through all stages of production, processing and distribution is under the scope of interest of the group. The aim of the area is to devise molecular biology tools to authenticate foods products, based on PCR, digital PCR and new generation sequencing.
There is now a growing trend among consumers to choose foods where the presence of synthetic preservatives to ensure food safety and quality is reduced or even absent. Due to their negative perception by consumers and to the pressure from regulators to reduce or even eliminate some of them, the food industry has been showing an increased interest and resorting to alternative compounds from nature.
Natural preservatives, such as extracts from raw material or obtained from the waste products of industries (circular economy) are tested for their antimicrobial activities and properties against microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and microalgae. The antimicrobial activities are detected and/or quantified by adapting and adjusting the standardized methodologies (e.g. agar diffusion, broth dilution, ATP luminescence measurement, etc.) to each specific characteristics of the tested natural antimicrobial compounds (e.g. liquid or solid, hydrophilic or hydrophobic, etc).
There are several sources for obtaining natural compounds with antimicrobial and antioxidant activity. The extraction and use of this group of compounds present in agro-alimentary waste is an excellent double strategy for the valorisation of this raw material, that is commonly treated as garbage and unused.