18 March 2016 15:30:14 IST

Say hello to a new era of probiotics

India is on the cusp of a probiotic revolution. Its use is going beyond medicines and food to tackle pollution

The river Ganges, according to Dr DS Bhargava, an expert on the subject, has a very unique quality — it self-purifies.

Due to reasons not yet discovered, its biochemical oxygen demand, or BOD, is 25 times less than any other river in the world. Which means the bacteria in the river take up much less oxygen, leaving the river generally rich in the gas.

And since the oxygen levels remain high, micro-organisms thrive in the river, and perform an important function — they take down pollutants, ripping them apart and breaking them down into chemically simpler substances. Substantial literature on this subject is available in the public domain.

Bacterial emulation

If the Ganga self-purifies due to the presence of beneficial microbes, can its example not be followed elsewhere? Sure it can! The use of micro-organisms for performing beneficial functions for us — like the way we use donkeys and horses — is a growing area in science-led human development.

Welcome to the world of probiotics.

India is on the cusp of a probiotics revolution — these live micro-organisms have been there in the form of probiotic medicines. Companies like Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, Zydus Cadila, Unichem and GlaxoSmithKline have had probiotic drugs.

In the last decade, there have been probiotic foods as well — mostly dairy products. You may have heard of Amul’s and Mother Dairy’s probiotic dahi and lassi products. Danone and Nestle have also jumped on the bandwagon. Today, the market for probiotic foods is relatively small — the Probiotic Association of India puts it at around $8 million. In contrast, the global market is put at $62 billion.

However, there is a good reason to believe that India is on the verge of a probiotic revolution.

Up till now, the industry has generally been restricted to providing wellness solutions — there are hundreds of products based on probiotics in foods and pharma. But now, going by some recent examples, micro-organisms are beginning to be used in other industries as well — for instance, in pollution control.

Pollution control

I was put up to this when I came across a Chennai-based start-up called ProKlean Technologies . Its products can do interesting things — clear clogged drainpipes; replace chemicals (called surfactants) as soaping agents in textile processing; de-grease factory floors; remove fats from leather… you name it. In some applications, they save huge quantities of water. The company’s founder, Dr SS Pillai, says you find a problem, and probiotics will provide a solution.

While there are hundreds of companies in the food and pharma probiotics area, there are very, very few in the area of ‘industrial probiotics’.

ProKlean, with support from the US-based SCD Probiotics, seems to be among the earliest entrants in the field. The Chennai start-up has attracted funding from Chennai Angels and Infuse Venture, the venture capital arm of IIM-Ahmedabad.

In the past, bacteria have been used for non-food and pharma applications — the celebrated cases are the treatment of oil slicks with micro-organisms. But those have been niche applications. What ProKlean is trying to do is make the use more widespread.

And that is exactly what the world needs today.