Curiosity Drives Research at Alltech


Dr. Richard Murphy, director of research, in a recent interview with Matt O'Keefe from Irish Farmers Monthly acknowledges the exceptional nature of the company: “We have a team of 20 working in the Alltech laboratory in the European Bioscience Centre in Dunboyne, Co Meath. We are lucky with the scope we have and the ability to engage in blue sky research. The company founder, Dr Pearse Lyons, has always encouraged us to be curious and to try new things and find new ways to address issues in the agricultural sphere, taking novel perspectives compared to the ‘normal’ approach. The facilities, along with the latitude in terms of setting research agendas, makes our work with Alltech very rewarding.”



The fact that the research lab at Dunboyne recently won the Agricultural Laboratory of the Year award at the Irish Laboratory Awards points to the standard of excellence of the research being undertaken in the facility: “It’s only when you win an accolade that you realise fully the scope of what you are involved in.” Richard has a great ability to translate seemingly complex research topics into easily-understandable layman’s language: “We do a lot of work that has application not just for livestock but in human health. One of the most interesting areas of research we are engaged in is antibiotic resistance. It’s very topical because the increasing numbers of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics are a very real threat to human health. Our approach is to develop strategies to reduce or even remove the use of antibiotics from animal production systems. We are examining and developing programmes that will allow livestock producers to reduce antibiotic use and, ultimately, remove antibiotics from their production systems. We see a huge range of bacteria present in both the animal and human gut. Not only that but the diversity of bacteria is quite phenomenal. Our aim is to maximise the range of bacteria present in the gut to maintain a healthy balance.”


Yeast research is another focus for Alltech: “We produce and sell yeast products that are added into livestock feeds. These aid the general health of the ruminant and help the digestion system. The overall aim is to help the animal to more efficiently utilise nutrients. Ultimately, that increases milk production in the dairy cow and increases liveweight gain on the beef side. One of our primary aims is to understand how different yeasts play different roles in the utilisation of various feed components. We have different yeast fractions isolated, some of which add to the diversity of bacteria in the gut and that, in turn, leads on to the reduced need for antibiotic use. There are also fractions of yeast that act on pathogens such as Escherichia coli and Salmonella, thus reducing gastrointestinal problems in the animal. This research and product development has application in human as well as animal health areas because there are a range of parallels between human and animal gut health.” As a former brewer, Alltech’s owner, Dr Lyons, has always taken a keen interest in yeast to the extent that he now has a range of commercially successful beers and whiskeys produced under the Alltech and Lyons brand names. Only half-joking, Richard mentions that one of the perks of his and his associates' jobs is to sample some of these beverages to determine their fitness for market. The latest alcohol-related initiative by Alltech was the opening in July of a new distillery in St James’s Church in the Liberties area of Dublin: “That’s a distinct departure for us, and one into which we have put a lot of effort and enthusiasm.”


Trace elements continue to be a core aspect of the Alltech product portfolio, Richard confirms: “We have a range of organic mineral products. Rather than the traditional sulphates that are commonly used in animal diets, we take the minerals and bind them to a protein component isolated from soy. That enhances the uptake within the animal because they are more bio-available. That has a lot of benefits, not just for the animal but also for the environment because if you can make a mineral more bio-available then you can add less to the diet and, consequently, there is reduced run-off of the mineral after excretion, into slurry and the environment generally. That’s one of Alltech’s guiding principles. We are interested in the consumer and the environment as well as the animal. It is a thought process that runs right across our product research and development.”


Richard agrees that Alltech’s investment in algae research over the past number of years has been an amazing experience and he insists that it has been a fully worthwhile effort: “We tend to look at algae differently, and not just as the green slime most people associate with stagnant water. Our algae is produced in human-food grade facilities in Lexington, Kentucky. It is an amazing organism in that we can manipulate it to produce not just different fats but also change the amount of fat that is produced, as well as a range of different feed components. These can enrich meat and egg products, with, for instance, omega-3, and there is potential in milk products also. That, in turn, creates opportunities to develop different value-added products. Even when we think about Brexit, these types of product developments are going to be critical to the wellbeing of Irish farmers, as we look at ways of producing foods that may be more valuable with the potential to gain increased market share outside of the traditional UK market. Algae is one of those specific organisms that we can use, not just for food enrichment, which we are prioritising at the moment, but in a diverse range of products that can be researched and developed over time.”


Was it accident or design that drew Richard into biochemistry? “Pure accident, I must admit. I first developed a love for the subject in Carlow Institute of Technology and wanted to pursue the subject further. I had an option of pursuing a course in microbiology in Trinity College Dublin but chose instead a biochemistry degree in NUI Galway. As part of that, I was on placement for three months with Alltech. That, in turn, led to a PhD, supported by Alltech. I have now been with Alltech for all of 24 years. It was fortuitous to get to work for such a progressive company that allows us to research so many different areas on a daily basis. That’s what drives the innovation that is such a central feature of the company. Some of that research doesn’t deliver commercial return, but that’s the nature of research. Scientific curiosity, however, has allowed us to successfully develop a range of novel and commercial products. One of the biggest benefits of working with a private company owned by Dr Lyons is that we are not under shareholder or time pressures to deliver results. We can try different things that cannot always be pursued by researchers under different constraints.

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