Why the next sustainable protein could come from volcanic springs

A US start-up has developed a technique to turn microbes into proteins as the search for environmentally friendly sources continues to heat up.

25 April 2019
fermentedmeat alternativeplant-basedproteintechnology
Yellowstone National Park
image credit: Getty Images

Did I just read the words ‘protein’ and ‘volcanic’ in the same sentence?

You sure did. Chicago-based start-up Sustainable Bioproducts has been investigating the possibility of producing food using microbes found in the volcanic springs of Yellowstone National Park.

Known as extremophiles because they have to survive in such a harsh environment, these microbes can be used to grow protein with a high nutritional value – and minimal impact on the environment – using fermentation technology.

Sustainable Bioproducts recently received a $33m investment to continue its research, with backers including the likes of Danone and Bill Gates.

“Curiosity and a passion for exploration led us to Yellowstone, one of the harshest ecosystems in the world,” said Thomas Jonas, the company’s CEO and co-founder. “By observing how life optimises the use of resources in this challenging environment, we have invented a way to make protein that is radically more efficient and gentler on our planet.”

I’m erupting with excitement. What’s the appeal?

A big win is the sustainability factor: the microbes can produce high-quality protein fast with minimal input compared to animals and plant-based sources like soy, which require a lot of land, energy and water.

“There is this growing realisation that microbes are pretty damn efficient,” Jonas told Food Spark’s sister site Food Navigator. “They make great proteins and they do it really fast, you don’t have to plant a seed and harvest it six months later, and you can completely control the environment.”

Jonas believes the fact that the protein comes from microbes won’t freak people out either, as in the future people won’t care whether the cells are from cows or volcanic springs. And let’s face it, we are already eating microbes in Quorn products as well as ingredients like algae and whey.

Is it bye to farming and hello to labs, then?

Jonas has a vision where he sees this tech turned into a suite of microscopic microbial protein factories.

“The whole protein game is really an efficiency game, although you also need form factors that will be appealing to consumers,” said Jonas. “As we get our pilot plant, we expect to be able to produce one kilo using less than 10 litres of water, which is a fraction of what’s needed for proteins generally, and we can cultivate the microbes efficiently at slightly above room temperature, so we’re talking about a low energy output.”

I’m having trouble imagining microbes in food form.

The microbes’ growing conditions are manipulated and they are also fed starches or glycerines to create a protein that contains the nine amino acids essential to the human diet, according to Sustainable Bioproducts.

However, the team isn’t interested in just growing the protein as a standalone thing.

Instead, it is focusing on creating a whole food ingredient, combining the protein with fibres, oil and micronutrients like vitamins B12 and D, iron and calcium. This ingredient would be light in colour, mild or bland in taste, and available in either liquid or powder form to make it suitable for multiple food applications.

It could be a key meat-alternative ingredient, for example, or even mixed into yoghurts for a protein boost.

So when could I be munching on some microbes?

The company wants to launch products on to the market by 2021.

Do you see more of this tech coming along?

Well, Perfect Day is already creating the protein from cow’s milk without any involvement from the animal using a craft brewing process.

Insects have also been a keen focus as sustainable protein factories. There are companies like Flying Spark, which is using fruit fly larvae to develop protein for new products, not to mention all the random cricket-based products that have infiltrated the market over the past few years.

Others are turning to plants like duckweed, with Plantible Foods working on crops that can grow quick enough in 24 hours to be harvested every day.

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