WATCH: What role will microscopic microbial factories play in the future of protein?

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags ADM Ventures Adm Microbial fermentation

Could a suite of microscopic microbial factories (yeast, bacteria, fungi, algae) churning out protein in huge fermentation tanks prompt the collapse of the meat and dairy industry as we know it, or are proponents of this view living in some kind of ‘vegan fantasyland’ (as dairy milk producers have argued)?

It’s too early to write off farm animals just yet, says Darren Streiler, investment director at ADM Ventures (ADM’s corporate venturing arm, which has invested in Geltor​, Perfect Day​ and SustainableBioproducts​), but this technology is rapidly moving from the laboratory to the real world.

At this stage, a lot of these companies are reaching Series B and they are raising significant amounts of funding and a lot of these companies have pilots that have now been performing for a number of years​,” said Streiler, who was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at Rabobank’s FoodBytes! pitch competition ​in Chicago last month (where he served as one of the judges).

So we’d characterize this space particularly in the mycoprotein and the fermentation-based and the cell cultured space, all in all, there are probably around 100 companies at this time. 

What interesting is that we’re really able to scale these technologies. For instance, ADM has some of the largest fermentation tanks in the US, and with one of our startups Perfect Day, we have a joint development agreement​ to manufacture their fermentation-based dairy proteins. We have 250,000 liter tanks that could really scale this type of technology.”

‘We have 250,000 liter tanks that could really scale this type of technology’

Asked whether proteins produced in cultivators/fermentation tanks/bioreactors (proponents are still arguing over the most consumer-friendly terminology) could ultimately account for a bigger market share than plant-based proteins, he said:“Not every type of protein is going to fit every type of customer.

"We see segments in the market and we’re aiming to provide options to satisfy all of those different segments.”

Noblegen fermentation tanks
Picture: Fermentation tanks at Noblegen, which is making a complete protein derived from a microorganism that it can coax into producing multiple high-value ingredients via a proprietary technique called ‘facilitated expression’ that doesn’t involve genetic engineering
Protein... the final frontier?

Producing protein from microbes has certain obvious advantages, say startups in the space.

For a start, instead of growing a living breathing animal just to break it down into products, they are designing the most efficient process to produce just the components we need, which can be manufactured  from a distributed network of local production facilities (fermentation tanks) using a fraction of the land, water, and inputs required to raise and feed animals.

(Not to mention, it also doesn’t involve raising and slaughtering animals on an industrial level.)

The resulting ingredients have the added appeal of consistent quality, a lack of price volatility, and security of supply. 

While several food ingredients from enzymes to sweeteners, vitamins, colors, and the heme protein in the Impossible Burger are already produced by tiny microorganisms, a new wave of startups is using microbes to produce things currently produced by mammals, from whey and casein proteins and egg white to sugars and proteins found in human breast milk.

Some companies such as Motif FoodWorks​​​ use synthetic biology to write DNA sequences that can be inserted into microorganisms to ‘instruct’ them to produce animal proteins; others such as Sustainable Bioproducts ​​​have identified microbes that naturally produce ‘new to the world’ proteins; while others such as Noblegen​​​ are working with microorganisms that can be coaxed into producing multiple high-value ingredients without using genetic engineering.

Others such as Air Protein​ ​(which utilizes single-cell organisms called hydrogenotrophs first studied by NASA in the 1960s), Solar Foods​​,​​ NovoNutrients​​​ and Deep Branch Biotechnology​​​ ​are converting components found in the air - notably carbon dioxide (which can be recycled from industrial waste) - into proteins. 

ADM Ventures investment director Darren Streiler (far right) was a judge at Rabobank's recent FoodBytes! pitch competition in Chicago

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