The Scientific Recipe for Success on the World Stage

Sugar, starch and enzymes are part of the research recipe that has helped Irish firm, Megazyme, reach international markets with its products, writes Dick Ahlstrom.

The beat-up, faded look so prized by the denim jeans brigade used to be achieved by washing your trousers with stones. Now all it takes is an enzyme tablet developed by an Irish company.

The enzymes are cellulases and they attack the cellulose cotton fibres, releasing some of the fibre and colour and giving the jeans instant street cred. Cellazyme C tablets are just one of the research-originated products developed by Bray-based company, Megazyme.

“We develop test kits and reagents for the cereal, foods, feed and fermentation industries”, explains Dr Barry McCleary, co-owner, co-founder and technical director. “The kits operate around the measurement of carbohydrates and enzymes.”

Several weeks ago, Dr. McCleary won the Wiley Award, presented by AOAC International, the international representative body for analytical chemistry.

It rewards “outstanding contributions to analytical chemistry” and includes a symposium in honour of the recipient, a medal and a cash award of about €5,700. He regards the award as “the highlight of my professional career”.

McCleary is originally from Australia, where he established the company in 1989. He and his wife, co-owner, co-founder and business director Angela Kennedy, decided to move the company to Ireland in 1996 and it now employs 12.

The company has enjoyed great success with the products coming from its research activities. It has shown how a small science-driven Irish company can reach world markets. Seven of its enzyme-based analysis products are now industry standards in the US.

Its system for measuring alpha-amylase in flour last year became the standard method used by the United Kingdom Flour Milling and Baking Association.

McCleary actively targets tests for substances important to the food and cereal industries for which no measuring methods exist. A good example was the development of a measuring system for a substance called beta-glucan in oats and barley.

Beta-glucan is a polysaccharide, or complex sugar, found in the cell walls of barley and oats. It is highly valued as a starch that resists break-down in the gut, a soluble form of fibre that is much easier to take than bran or other non-soluble fibre. It can be a problem in barley used in brewing, however. Malted barley high in beta-glucan can make the beer cloudy and form gels that clog filtration systems.

“The other place it becomes a problem is in animal feeds”, says McCleary. If heightened levels occur in chicken feeds it literally "gums them up” and affects feed conversion to meat.

McCleary developed a test to measure the barley and oat starch, 1,3:1,4-beta-glucan. It involves two enzymes, one to break down the beta-glucan into smaller sugars, oligosaccharides, and a second to hydrolyse these into glucose. The glucose levels can then be measured to give initial beta-glucan levels.

The company has renewed its research interest in non-plant forms of beta-glucan arising in a range of sources, including yeast and mushrooms and from botrytis used in the wine industry.

“The reason yeast beta-glucan is of interest is there are reports that it can stimulated the immune system”, McCleary explains. Similar claims have been made for mushroom beta-glucan, with the Japanese market for this material worth about €190 million a year.

Yeast beta-glucan is “incredibly insoluble”, says McCleary, and measuring the substance hasn’t been possible until now. His company will launch a new test for 1,3:1,6-beat-glucan from yeast this May at a dietary fibre conference in Edinburgh. It will allow those making claims about beta-glucan content to prove their products contain the substance at the claimed levels. This test also required two steps, says McCleary. A Partial acid hydroysis breaks up the beta-glucan into shorter sugars and a second enzyme converts this to glucose which can be measured.

He is also working on a beta-glucan test for botrytis. This fungus causes fruit spoilage but is also used intentionally by the wine industry to modify the flavour of certain wines. The beta-glucan it produces causes similar problems as with barley in beer fermentation, including blocked filters.

McCleary is working on a test that will measure botrytis beta-glucan in wine production so that the use of expensive enzymes to break it down during fermentation can be kept to a minimum.

The Irish Times