Fermentation and Recombinant Protein Technology 101

Why do we need it? An introduction:

Historically, the process of fermentation has been used to preserve foods, enhance nutrition, and create alcoholic drinks. From the Vikings, who preserved stores of fermented grains in ceramic pots, to George Washington, who owned his own post-presidential whiskey distillery, to a modern day jar of kimchi or pickles, fermentation has been used for centuries. Today, fermentation has a new role: it is the process at the forefront of creating alternative proteins. These are just what they sound like: alternate sources of protein distinct from traditionally farmed meat. Meat produced by traditional agricultural methods has a harsh impact on our climate that is growing increasingly concerning as our population grows. On the most basic level, cows produce methane when the microbes in their stomachs break down grasses and other feed, and release it into the atmosphere through gas and burps. While this might sound trivial, and while methane takes second place in emission rates to carbon dioxide, methane traps heat at higher levels, and warms the atmosphere at a faster rate than CO2. According to the United States Environmental Agency (EPA), over a span of 100 years, methane will have 21 times more impact on our global warming than CO2. By 2050, it’s projected we’ll have to feed a global population of 10 billion people, on a planet that’s increasingly strained under our current habits. Agriculture is a leading cause of climate destruction, and approaching improving its environmental impact is the key to sustaining our planet. A dietary switch on behalf of frequent (traditionally farmed) meat eaters could mean the difference between the destruction or the sustainability of our home planet and our future generations.

This doesn’t necessarily mean becoming vegan or even strictly vegetarian; research out of UC Davis indicates that a Mediterranean diet has similar emission rates to a vegan or vegetarian diet. The research indicates that if more people switched to a Mediterranean diet, we could decrease the pollution that causes global warming by 15 percent by 2050; and as The Guardian reports, reducing meat consumption is essential to avoiding climate crisis. The research also indicates that people are making a switch — according to McKinsey and Company, a marketing management consulting firm, in 2019 the alternative protein market was at $2.2 billion, whereas the traditional meat market was at $1.7 billion worldwide. According to the scientific journal Nature, this dietary change could cut CO2 emissions by up to eight billion tons each year. It would also begin to free up the massive amounts of land being used to graze animals, which currently is a significant source of deforestation. Avoiding the climate crisis and feeding a fast growing population are tasks that require research, education, and immediate action. Fermentation and recombinant protein technology could be the solution to the problem.

How does fermentation technology work, and who is using it?

Fermentation technology uses the cells of organisms such as plants, bacteria, algae, and fungi — microflora. Fermentation is the process of chemical change through enzymatic action. Once placed in a bioreactor (see Bioprocess 101), these original cells go through a process of fermentation, which allows the cells to multiply. The product of this process is biomass, which simply put, means a mass of organic substance. From this biomass, proteins can be extracted to form the base of meat, egg, or dairy products. The fact that this process is historically venerable, does not require a massive amount of land, does not slaughter an animal, does not produce the methane — or greenhouse gases — that animals do, does not contribute to ocean dead zones due to water waste runoff, create antibiotic resistance that a medicated animal would, and so on, all points to fermentation technology as the future of creating and consuming protein in a sustainable way. “Sustainability” has become such a buzzword; in relation to fermentation technology, it simply means finding the most efficient way to get a rapidly shortening supply of protein to our growing population, while ensuring that we have a healthy planet to live on.

The largest up and coming consumer bracket for alternative proteins are not vegetarians or vegans, but what the industry calls “flexitarians” — in other words, omnivores. Those who still enjoy meat, but are becoming increasingly aware of its multiple downsides, such as health and environmental concerns, and are looking to eat less of it. These flexitarians are considered one of the largest groups of consumers in the world. According to global management consulting firm AT Kearney and alternative product research nonprofit The Good Food Institute, it is possible that plant based and cultured meat, combined, will account for up to 60 percent of the meat market by 2040.

Another reason fermentation is the future of food production is because of its ability to mimic traditional meat and dairy products. What the industry will have to cater to, and on the flip side combat, are people’s deep seated tastes and tendencies for traditional products. The more meat-like the industry can make the product, the less cause there will be for a flexitarian, who’s deciding between traditionally farmed meat and either plant based or cultivated meat, to consider their options at the grocery store. While plant meat based alternatives are gaining serious traction, cell based meat is yet to be integrated into the consumer market. The psychology of the general public may need to shift, and this includes combatting the “ew” factor of what people believe is unnatural, as well as the “it’s not quite the same” attitude. The Impossible Burger is made using fermentation technology, and is essentially made out of fermented yeast (similarly, as the Washington Post reports, to the process of making Belgian beer). Again, these processes are widely accepted when the product is something as tried, true, and enjoyed as beer. Foods like the Impossible Burger are making the concept of plant based meat alternatives more and more familiar to a wider audience. When it comes to taking it a step further into the realm of cell based meat, or cultured meat, public reception is still an open question.

Fermentation technology can also use yeast to create natural food dyes for plant based meat products. As the public becomes increasingly aware of the downsides of artificial food dyes, natural, plant based dyes that mimic the rich colors of meat are in demand. Fermentation can also improve the color of food products. As reported by Ag Funder Network Partners, recent startup in the food color world, Phytolon, is hard at work fermenting yeast to produce vibrant, natural food dyes. The dark reds and purples created by scientists like these are highly effective in matching the dark reds or rich browns of traditional meat; something that will go a long way in cultivating consumer acceptance.

And what is recombinant protein production, and how is it used?

Recombinant protein production bears many similarities to fermentation technology, and is often known as precision fermentation. A recombinant protein is a protein from one organism that is produced in another organism using genetic engineering. When applied to a food context (like production of the Impossible Burger), this technology involves selecting a desired gene, such as a soy leghemoglobin gene. By inserting this gene into yeast DNA, where the yeast can make the protein much faster and with a much higher volume than soy could on its own. Soy leghemoglobin is the plant version of humans’ hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen through the blood). It is what Impossible Foods calls the “heme” in the Impossible Burger, which makes the burger “bleed” like meat. Yeast, which is programmed to make the heme, is fermented and therefore multiplied, producing the heme on a mass scale.

Using this technology to increase plant based protein production is necessary because regular soybean production in the United States would not be able to produce the amount of soy leghemoglobin needed to create products such as the Impossible Burger (which uses recombinant protein technology) on a wide scale. This technology is already familiar in our everyday lives, whether we know it or not, and has proven fruitful before. Insulin was the first recombinant protein widely used, and has made the quality of life for diabetics better since its approval in 1982. 80 percent of cheese in the U.S. is made using a recombinant protein since it was approved in 1990. This is just another foray into changing the genetic code of something organic, to produce more organic substances that will have a positive effect on the quality of life on a massive scale. It is more than just an increased yield of product; it is the health and well being of our planet and the avoidance of famine.

Perfect Day Foods is another great example of the way recombinant protein can be used to get microflora such as bacteria, yeast, and fungi, to produce animal proteins. As they explain it, this microflora is especially good at producing animal proteins, and is a tried and true method of producing food safely. The FDA declared their proteins GRAS, or Generally Recognized as Safe, earlier this year in the spring of 2020. Essentially, Perfect Day Foods inserts the genetic code for casein and whey, two proteins found in milk, into yeast, fungi, or bacteria cells, and the microflora produces the dairy proteins. On top of producing these milk proteins without an animal, there is a larger quantity of proteins produced. The final product won’t have the lactose, antibiotics, hormones, etc. that a traditional glass of milk would (which also benefits lactose intolerant customers).

A brief conclusion

Fermentation and recombinant protein technology will yield satisfactory results with inexpensive ingredients. For instance, yeast is a single cell organism, and can be cultivated fairly quickly and at a high volume. According to the Good Food Institute, the field of alternative proteins has seen a $1.5 billion investment this year, in 2020. $435 million was invested in fermentation technology alone, and that’s under the current pandemic. At this current rate, the use of fermentation and recombinant protein technology presents some of the best ways to approach both our population’s and our Earth’s changing and increasingly urgent needs.

Written by: Thea Burke for Helikon Consulting, LLC

For more information on topics and companies covered in this article:

References:

Brandenburg, Oliver, et al. Biosafety Resource Book: Introduction to Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011.

US EPA, OAR. “Atmospheric Lifetime and Global Warming Potential Defined.” US EPA, 3 Aug. 2015, https://www.epa.gov/climateleadership/atmospheric-lifetime-and-global-warming-potential-defined.

“$1.5 Billion Invested in Alternative Proteins in 2020, Including a Record $435 Million in the next Pillar — Fermentation.” The Good Food Institute, https://www.gfi.org/alternative-protein-fermentation-investments-2020-media-release#:~:text=%241.5%20billion%20invested%20in%20alternative,in%20the%20next%20pillar%E2%80%94fermentation.

“Process.” Perfect Day, https://perfectdayinc.wpengine.com/process/.

Schiermeier, Quirin. “Eat Less Meat: UN Climate-Change Report Calls for Change to Human Diet.” Nature, vol. 572, no. 7769, Aug. 2019, pp. 291–92. www.nature.com, doi:10.1038/d41586–019–02409–7.

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Helikon Consulting

Helikon Consulting

Scientific consulting in alternative proteins — plant-based proteins, cellular agriculture, and cell-based meat