A big role for tiny organisms in the future of protein

In addition to plant and cell-based sources, microscopic organisms may play a big role in shaping a healthier, more sustainable future of protein.
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We need to think creatively about protein sources to meet demand from a growing population. In addition to plant and cell-based sources, microscopic organisms may play a big role in shaping a healthier, more sustainable future of protein.

Microorganisms (small organisms that can only be seen with a microscope, such as yeast, bacteria, and algae) are already a regular part of our diets. Yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha all contain live bacteria that are good for us. In fact, food featuring probiotics (good gut bacteria) is one of the top food trends for this year. Active (meaning living) yeast is used to help bread rise, and inactive (meaning non-living) yeast is used as a topping in the form of nutritional yeast. Microorganisms also produce many of the sweeteners and flavors that are added to our food.

But microorganisms can gain an even larger share of our plate as a protein source.

First, we can make animal proteins from microorganisms instead of from animals.

Microorganisms open the door to making the same proteins we are already familiar with but in a more efficient, innovative way: microbial fermentation.

Let’s break it down.

Genes are the blueprint to construct a protein. Inserting the gene for an animal protein into a microorganism enables it to synthesize proteins with amino acid sequences identical to those derived from animals. These proteins are then separated from the microorganisms and used as an ingredient in other foods.

This process is more consistent and less susceptible to contamination than conventional animal agriculture. And by bypassing the need for animals, this process is less resource intensive and more sustainable.

This technique was pioneered in the 1970s to make insulin for diabetics. Before that, insulin had to be extracted from pig or cattle pancreases. Similarly, rennet (enzymes that help turn milk into cheese) used to (sadly) come from the stomachs of slaughtered calves. But now, rennet is mostly produced by microorganisms. (Learn more about how microorganisms can be used to produce animal proteins with this GFI whitepaper.)

Several startups are working on using this technology to make more types of animal proteins: Perfect Day is making dairy proteins without cows, Clara Foods is making egg whites without hens, and Geltor is making collagen without animal skin and bones.

This technology can be applied to plant-based proteins as well. For example, Impossible Foods is making soy heme (normally found in small quantities in the root nodules of soy plants) using microbial fermentation for their plant-based burgers.

And there are many more opportunities for microorganisms to make animal and plant products!

Second, microorganisms can themselves be delicious, healthy, and efficient sources of protein.

Microorganisms can widen our view of protein sources beyond plants and animals to include new and innovative products.

Several companies are seizing the opportunity to create protein from microbes. For example, Quorn is making meat from mycoprotein, a single-cell microorganism that is high in protein and fiber and low in saturated fat. Sustainable Bioproducts is also using fungal microorganisms to create meat (fun fact: the type of microorganism they are using is called an “extremophile” because of its ability to thrive in extreme environments such as volcanic springs).

AlgaVia Protein-Rich Whole Algae is leveraging the power of algae microorganisms to deliver food and supplements packed with protein and micronutrients. Similarly, spirulina is made of healthy bacteria and dubbed a new superfood. It’s an easily digestible source of iron, vitamin B12, and other vitamins and minerals.

All of these products require drastically fewer resources to produce each unit of protein and micronutrients.

To sustainably feed the world, we will need to think bigger. And that may include looking more to tiny microbes and their power to make great proteins and nutrient-rich foods.


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Sophie Troyka