Wauwatosa Lab Tries to Identify Helpful Bacteria Needed to Break Down Antioxidants

Noah Zimmerman of Agro BioSciences is one of the key players working to identify important bacteria that helps bodies absorb nutrients from antioxidants.
To the average consumer, the rules of healthy eating seem fairly simple: Eat foods that are the color of the rainbow every day. In turn, your body will reap the benefits of antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables.

The experts at Agro BioSciences don't see things that simply. In order for the body to enjoy the effects of antioxidants, they said,

it needs to have a certain kind of bacteria to break down the compounds in fruits and vegetables. The problem is, some people do not have that bacteria and, therefore, cannot enjoy the health benefits of antioxidants.

What is this bacteria? And how can it be given to people who don't have it?

These are the questions that Agro BioSciences is seeking to answer within the next six months.

"It is a technical area with lots of real life implications and applications," said Tom Rehberger, president.

Rehberger founded Agro BioSciences in 2013 after serving as vice president and co-founder of Agtech Products, a Pewaukee-based high-growth microbial sciences company that was acquired in 2006 by Denmark's Danisco A/S.

Agro BioSciences is a Wauwatosa-based operation comprising five individuals, who have microbiology, physiology and business backgrounds, out of the Technology Innovation Center in the Milwaukee County Research Park.

At this point, much of the research has been done on rats.

"A lot of information has been known in rodent that is applicable to what is known in human," Rehberger said. "That's always a stretch for some people (to understand)," he added jokingly.

Ideally, any bacteria that is identified and presumably safe for human consumption would be converted into a pill form — like a probiotic — for people to take before eating fruits and vegetables. That's not to say that the pill itself contains antioxidants.

"It's not going to be that easy," Rehberger said. "People think that a pill can do it, but in reality, you have to eat that balanced diet and work with nutrition every day."

The lab also focuses on improving animal food to help animals grow healthier from birth. About 25 to 30 percent of the swine industry uses Agro BioSciences products, as well as 60 to 65 percent of the nation's farmed turkey population.

The company also is seeking ways to make food fermentation more efficient to prevent premature spoilage of fermented foods like wine, cheese and yogurt, for example.

"To me, it's fascinating that we can improve our health with what we've already got in plants, and food that we're already eating. The chance to fine tune and optimize that for me is really exciting," said Noah Zimmerman, vice president of research and development.

Agro BioSciences has gotten attention lately for its laboratory expansion of 1,150 square feet from its current 500-square-foot space. It also received a Small Business Innovation Research grant that will help Agro BioSciences continue its research related to bioactive phytochemicals, like antioxidants.