One of the main issues when orally administering microorganism-based probiotics is the significant loss of bioactivity as they pass through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. To overcome these issues, here, we propose to encapsulate the probiotic yeast Kluyveromyces lactis on chemically crosslinked gelatin hydrogels as a means to protect the bioactive agents in different environments. Hydrogels were prepared by the chemical crosslinking of gelatin, which is commercially available and inexpensive. This is crucial to ensure scalability and cost-effectiveness. To explore changes in key physicochemical parameters and their impact on cell viability, we varied the concentration of the crosslinking agent (glutaraldehyde) and the gelatin. The synthesized hydrogels were characterized in terms of morphological, physical-chemical, mechanical, thermal and rheological properties. This comprehensive characterization allowed us to identify critical parameters to facilitate encapsulation and enhance cell survival. Mainly due to pore size in the range of 5-10 μm, sufficient rigidity (breaking forces of about 1 N), low brittleness and structural stability under swelling and relatively high shear conditions, we selected hydrogels with a high concentration of gelatin (7.5% (w/v)) and concentrations of the crosslinking agent of 3.0% and 5.0% (w/w) for cell encapsulation. Yeasts were encapsulated with an efficiency of about 10% and subsequently tested in bioreactor operation and GI tract simulated media, thereby leading to cell viability levels that approached 95% and 50%, respectively. After testing, the hydrogels' firmness was only reduced to half of the initial value and maintained resistance to shear even under extreme pH conditions. The mechanisms underlying the observed mechanical response will require further investigation. These encouraging results, added to the superior structural stability after the treatments, indicate that the proposed encapsulates are suitable to overcome most of the major issues of oral administration of probiotics and open the possibility to explore additional biotech applications further.
Keywords: crosslinking; encapsulation; gelatin matrix; hydrogels; probiotics.