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Tech from Flanders, sustainable alternative for pesticides

Sustainable food and feed production is the holy grail of organizations around the globe. However, not using any pesticides or antibiotics increases the risk of contamination and disease in agriculture and aquaculture. To help turn the tide, a start-up from Ghent (Flanders) deploys technology to monitor bacteria in natural environments and intervene in a targeted manner when necessary. The young innovative company was recently featured in business newspaper De Tijd. Meet KYTOS!

The fruits of 15 years of research

The driving forces behind the UGent spin-off are Ruben Props (30), Frederiek-Maarten Kerckhof (32) and Nico Boon (46). With KYTOS, they are among the first new residents of Capture, a research center and business incubator located in Zwijnaarde (Flanders) that focuses on the circular use of CO₂, plastic and water. Ruben and Frederiek-Maarten both earned their doctorates from Nico Boon, professor of microbial ecology at the University of Ghent (UGent), one of Flanders’ main universities.

“For 15 years, we have been researching ways to analyze the health of microbial systems,” Nico Boon explains. “Every natural environment – the human body, a plant, a puddle of water, a glass of kombucha – contains an ecosystem of microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi, viruses and yeasts that keep each other in balance. However, in case of disease or infection, the proportions of microorganisms change. By using microbiome technology, we can monitor these changes – just like a thermometer measures body temperature – and estimate whether there’s an impending problem.”

Applications in numerous domains

Such an approach is becoming increasingly important to help cut the use of pesticides and antibiotics in agriculture and aquaculture among other industries, while still ensuring the highest standards in terms of food safety.

Everything needs to be more sustainable, as the continuous administration of preservatives is no longer tolerated. This trend leads to more microbial outgrowth – and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, you do have to manage it.

Frederiek-Maarten Kerckhof
co-founder of KYTOS

But there are other possible applications of microbiome technology as well. “The days when we used to wash clothes at 90 degrees Celsius are long gone,” says Nico Boon. “Washing at around 30 degrees Celsius is the new norm nowadays because it’s more ecological. However, this is also the ideal temperature for bacteria to develop, causing odor problems in washing machines.”

Microbial management for the sustainable win

The work of KYTOS can also be an enabler to help achieve European sustainability ambitions. “By 2030, the sales of antibacterial agents must be halved,” says Ruben Props. But this has consequences. Chemicals can eliminate any risk of contamination, for instance in factory settings. But if you don’t allow companies to use them anymore, disinfection must be done differently. That’s where microbial management comes in.”

Instead of reducing harmful bacteria through disinfectants and medicines, we try to intervene in a more targeted way, be proactive and stimulate good microorganisms as much as possible – so that microbial ecosystems can do the work themselves.

Ruben Props
co-founder of KYTOS

While the idea sounds obvious on paper, it is a complex ambition to achieve. Backed by 15 years of research, a proprietary mathematical model and machine learning, KYTOS seeks to pull off the daunting task. Nico Boon: “We started by analyzing bottled water to see if we could measure the microbial difference between two brands: Evian and Spa. That worked out great. Today, we have accomplished so much more: our system can determine the microbial fingerprint of almost any liquid.”

5,000 cells per second

The road to get there was far from easy. One of the main challenges that KYTOS had to tackle was the enormous amount of information that needs to be analyzed. “One drop of water contains up to 100 million cells,” Ruben Props explains. “What’s more, every environment is unique, containing different bacteria, viruses, algae, etc. To map all of this out in a very precise way would require thousands of analyses, preferably in real time. Trying to pull this off using samples isn’t realistic: you’d need multiple liters of liquids, which would have to stay in a laboratory for weeks.”

That’s why KYTOS developed a technology that allows to screen 5,000 cells per second in samples as small as 1 milliliter, with a maximum of 600 samples per day. This is done through flow cytometry, a laboratory method that can detect, identify and count specific cells using lasers.

In just a few minutes, we have the results and then the magic starts. What makes our technology so special is not so much the hardware or the machine learning, but the fact that the database is full of unique microbial information, which we can link through our algorithms. With each analysis, the system gets smarter.

Frederiek-Maarten Kerckhof
co-founder of KYTOS

Exploring numerous avenues

Aquaculture is the first concrete application on which KYTOS focuses. “That’s where we can make a major difference quickly,” Ruben Props explains. “Aquaculture is a fast-growing business, attracting more and more investments. But there’s a problem: because of diseases and infections, the industry faces huge losses. In shrimp farming alone, it is estimated that half of the shrimp are lost every year, costing the sector USD 6 billion worldwide. Meanwhile, sea lice infections cost salmon farms USD 1 billion per year – not to mention tuna farms, which are impacted even more.”

In the meantime, KYTOS is already exploring other avenues as well, such as the analysis of drinking water and industrial water. Nico Boon: “Monitoring the quality of cooling water and drinking water is important for organizations that aim to reuse wastewater. In this regard, tests are underway at eight drinking water companies.”

But wait, there’s more! The company is also looking at two emerging techniques in the agri-industry: hydroponics, the soilless cultivation of plants, and aquaponics, which is a combination of hydroponics and fish farming. Talk about seeing it big!  

9 September 2021

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