Do you ever wonder about spore-forming bacteria in your protein powder? Aoife McHugh does, and she’s figuring out a way to stop it.

Aoife McHugh from University College Cork is fascinated by spore-forming bacteria in dairy powders, and she’s also determined to better detect and understand them. Because Ireland is producing more milk than ever, and more of it is getting processed into longer shelf-life products such as powder, her research could help to improve the quality and safety of these products.

Dairy farmers’ milk is processed in a way that kills any harmful bacteria lurking in there and, in the powdered product, the drying process eliminates the surviving bacteria. “They dehydrate and they die, except for a very small proportion: the spore-forming bacteria,” McHugh told the audience at Researchfest, Inspirefest’s annual science communication contest.

These bacteria react to these environmental stresses by “[shutting] themselves off from the world around them, like angry teenagers”. They do this by packaging all their important information into a tough spore coat. They remain dormant in this way for as long as the drought lasts. “Unresponsive, unaware, until today after the gym, I’ll add my liquid to my [protein] powder.”

You see, dried milk powder goes on to be used in other products, such as the powders used to mix protein drinks for fitness fans. If spore-forming bacteria is hiding undetected in these powders, they will detect the moisture and nutrients from the added liquid and burst into life.

Not to worry, though, as one protein drink will only contain a low level of spore-formers and is not likely to cause an issue in your gut. However, in large batch processors: “Spore-formers can hide in crevices, adhere to surfaces and survive cleaning … They can accumulate with each new batch and then they can cause an issue.”

That’s why, in the lab, McHugh is applying novel, next-generation DNA sequencing technology to detect these bacteria and better understand them. Her techniques are more accurate and informative than current methods used, offering a greater insight into how these tough spore-forming bacteria survive and their potential to cause illness or spoil foods.

Words by Elaine Burke

Updated, 3.20pm, 11 September 2018: This article was updated to clarify references to spore-forming bacteria and spore-formers, which were mistakenly referred to as sporifying bacteria and sporiforma.