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For microbial foods, technical innovation might not be greatest hurdle

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For microbial foods, technical innovation might not be greatest hurdle

A new study catalogs foods made from bacteria, algae, and fungi—and considers their potential for industrial production in a climate-resilient future.
April 19, 2024

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Microbial foods require a fraction of the land area, water, and growth inputs—and yet they could feed millions, possibly billions. In a new perspective research paper, a team of engineers hone in on the technologies that could make this alien-sounding fare a feasible part of a climate-resilient future.

The range of microbial foods is already wide and varied, and in research circles there’s much said about the promise they hold in an uncertain agricultural future. But there have been limited efforts to catalog these foods all in one place, and consider how viable it would be to produce them on an industrial scale. That’s where the new research comes in: the experts on the recent Nature Microbiology paper looked at the variety of these already-available foods, and what would be needed to upscale their production and spread. 

First, their survey revealed just how widespread microbial foods already are in our lives, with many companies using them to produce nutritional compounds and food biomass. For example, β-Lactoglobulin and ovalbumin—milk and egg proteins—can be manufactured using engineered bacteria and fungi like the yeast strain Komagataella phaffii, to produce livestock-free additives that are needed in the production of food. Meanwhile, a host of oleaginous species—microbes known for their natural oil-producing properties—are being wielded to produce substitute oils and fats. Paired with synthetic biology, the fatty acid chains that these and other microbes generate can be adjusted to make different kinds of fat substitutes for cocoa butter, palm oil, even beef fat. 

Some of the greatest promise lies in protein-rich bacteria, algae, fungi, and yeasts whose actual biomass can be harvested in the form of single-celled proteins to make alternative meats, ice cream, and mayonnaise. 

 

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Of course, these microbes don’t feed on thin air (well, some do—we’ll get to that.) But the researchers’ review revealed huge opportunities for recycling of waste streams as a feedstock for microbes, for instance leftovers from food production, excess sugar from cane production, oat and potato byproducts, and wood chips. One interesting example is called oncom, formed by filamentous fungi that feeds off waste from the production of soybean and peanut oil, to form a tempeh-like staple that’s commonly eaten in Indonesia.

Decoupling things completely from the land, some microbes may even be able to flourish on the carbon dioxide in air. However this process requires direct air-capture technology, and other technologies to also release the carbon that would provide the key feedstock for hungry microbes, and these can be energy- and cost-intensive. Another available option is to use renewable energy to reduce CO2 to make formic acid, which has already been successfully used as a feedstock to grow protein-forming C. necator, a type of soil bacteria that’s useful in the production of alternative meat and fish. 

To produce feed nutrients like nitrogen—another key element for microbial nourishment and growth—the researchers again underscore the potential to divert waste streams from agriculture and elsewhere that are often rich in excess ammonia. What’s more, we could harness the potential of other microorganisms like algae, many of which naturally produce phosphorus, or a host of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which themselves could become feedstock for nourishing other food-making microbes. 

Microbial foods may seem like an alien concept, but the new study brings it into closer focus, revealing how many types, feedstocks, and technologies already exist to make it a reality. In fact the bigger hurdle its authors believe, won’t so much be the capability to make food from microbes, but rather getting people to eat it. Consumer tastes and regulatory approval are two major obstacles they identify in the path of microbial foods, which may take some time to dissolve. 

In the meantime, they have some ideas for where to head next. Crucially, they see a huge opportunity to substitute animal feed from crops with microbial nutrients. That could be the gateway to getting it into human diets, and a way to take huge amounts of pressure off the land. 

‘Microbial foods’ also has an inherent ick factor that needs a rebrand, they believe. Communicating to consumers that these are just an extension of many familiar things we already eat—fermented foods, live cultures, probiotics, and alternative meat proteins—could pave the way to greater acceptance.

Choi et. al. “From sustainable feedstocks to microbial foods.” Nature Microbiology. 2024.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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