New endowments created honoring Klaenhammer’s legacy in probiotics research

Dr. Todd Klaenhammer rarely is at a loss for words.

Considered to be the world’s foremost researcher in the field of starter cultures and probiotics, Klaenhammer is used to speaking to audiences all over the globe about the groundbreaking work taking place in his laboratory at NC State University.

But on a sunny Friday in May, standing at a podium in the Hunt Library in front of an audience of his students, colleagues and peers, Klaenhammer was gobsmacked.

The Todd R. Klaenhammer Distinguished Professorship in Probiotics Research had just been announced, during a break in an afternoon symposium celebrating Klaenhammer’s career.

A surprise to Klaenhammer, the $1 million endowment will support the activities of a full professor specializing in probiotics research within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences. Members of the North Carolina Dairy Foundation’s Sweet Acidophilus Committee, operating under the auspices of the North Carolina Agricultural Foundation Inc., will fund the endowment with income generated by royalties.

During the presentation, Brant Johnson, one of Klaenhammer’s current graduate students, presented him with a book containing copies of the first page of every single one of Klaenhammer’s publications.

“I’m extremely honored and humbled for this recognition, and emotionally grateful for all the excellent work driven by many extremely talented scientists and professionals in our research and administrative groups over 37 years,” Klaenhammer said.

He had organized the May 15 “Career Celebration Symposium” as a gathering of alumni who trained at NC State on the subject of lactic acid bacteria, bringing in colleagues from NC State, Japan, Ireland, Canada and the Netherlands. Little did he know what was in store for that afternoon break.

And after the shock of that announcement, the hits kept coming.

At an evening reception at the Roy Park Alumni Center, the Todd R. and Amy E. Klaenhammer FBNS Graduate Award Endowment in Food Microbiology and Functional Genomics was announced.

The endowment – which has raised more than $56,000 at press time – was created as a surprise for Klaenhammer by his colleagues, former students, family and friends to provide awards for graduate students in the FBNS Department who are working in an area of food microbiology or functional genomics.

In 1978, Klaenhammer joined the college as an assistant professor. In 1993 he was recognized as a William Neal Reynolds Professor, and in 2001, he was named a Distinguished University Professor with appointments in the FBNS Department, the departments of Microbiology and Genetics, and the Functional Genomics Program.

Klaenhammer’s research team has published more than 280 articles on dairy lactic acid bacteria and their bacteriophages, as well as probiotic cultures and their genomic traits. Led by Klaenhammer, the group determined the three core mechanisms by which lactococci defend themselves against bacteriophages. The research group spearheaded efforts to sequence beneficial lactic acid bacteria and determined and published the complete genome sequences of Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus gasseri to reveal many genetic traits underlying probiotic mechanisms.

Using genetic tools developed by the Klaenhammer team, modifications to lactobacilli have been used to develop oral probiotics that could deliver vaccines and bio-therapeutics and also abate colon cancer and colitis.

Klaenhammer was elected as a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Microbiology, the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) and the American Dairy Science Association (ADSA). In both ADSA and IFT, he was awarded their highest honors, the Borden and Nicolas Appert awards, respectively. He was elected into the National Academy of Sciences in 2001. The Board of Governors of the UNC system in 2009 awarded Klaenhammer’s group the prestigious O. Max Gardner award for the most outstanding research in the university system.

Now he is on phased retirement, which in his words means, “I have two years left to figure out how to work at 50 percent time.”

Knowing that his legacy will be perpetuated by these two new endowments is a dream come true, Klaenhammer said.

“My hopes for both the endowment and scholarship are that these incentives will attract and support excellent faculty and students working with the beneficial microbes that preserve our foods and positively impact our health,” Klaenhammer said. “Our laboratory banner is ‘get cultured – eat bacteria,’ and I believe this is a scientific field that will continue to explode in the future.”

– Suzanne Stanard