Has E.coli finally met its match in buttermilk?

New Teagasc research suggests that a buttermilk membrane may prove effective in preventing E. coli infection in humans.

E. coli infections can lead to diarrhoea, kidney failure or even death, as was demonstrated in the 2011 mass outbreaks in Germany, due to contaminated sprouts, which affected almost 4000 people, of whom 53 died.

Traditionally, antibiotics are used to treat E. coli infection but the emergence of antibiotic resistant strains makes treating infection increasingly difficult.

According to Sarah Ross, who recently won a joint poster award for her work on E. coli at the Teagasc Walsh Fellowships seminar, milk fat globule membrane (MFGM), a component in bovine milk, may prove pivotal in resisting the E. coli infection.

According to Teagasc, “MFGM can be sourced from buttermilk, a dairy fraction which is produced in high quantities in the dairy industry.

“The MFGM is composed of fats and proteins, many of which contain bound sugars. We generated a milk fraction, rich in these MFGM sugars, from bovine buttermilk and characterised its components.”

The ability of a highly infectious strain of E. coli to infect human intestinal cells was tested in the presence and absence of the MFGM fraction. The Teagasc research team demonstrated that the MFGM fraction could significantly reduce the ability of particular strains of E. coli to infect the human intestinal cells.

Research on the effects of MFGM is ongoing, but is understood to be taking place for the last four years.

The Teagasc research team also included Jonathan Lane and Rita Hickey at Moorepark.

“There is potential to include this fraction as a functional ingredient in consumer products, such as in functional beverages, aiming to provide daily protection from infection,” said Teagasc.

“This work highlights an alternative use for buttermilk, increasing the worth of this under-valued dairy stream and, in turn, increasing the value of milk in the dairy industry as a whole.”