Synthetic biology (synbio) is a versatile toolbox for addressing the complex challenges in today’s modern world. By engineering microorganisms, scientists are able to develop new drug therapies, improve agricultural techniques and better monitor natural resources. In later years, synbio has also become a key strategy to develop innovative solutions in another giant sector: the food industry.
As the Earth’s population grows, so does the demand for certain food items. Meat, dairy, eggs and even some flavours, such as vanilla, are expected to become increasingly sought-after in the next few years. However, meeting such increased demand through traditional production methods has proven challenging. Not only there are constraints to the supply chain but there are also important environmental impacts to consider with increased farming. Current livestock farms occupy around 26% of the living surface on the planet and are responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. As the effect of environmental changes progressively impact people and countries all around the globe, developing sustainable technologies in food production is not just an option but a necessity.
To address these growing challenges, several biotech companies are taking a revolutionary approach to the way we see food. They are identifying which molecules make certain food items so appealing to our palates and modifying yeast to produce them through biosynthesis.
The process takes advantage of yeast fermentation, similar to what is used in wineries and breweries or even at home to make beer and wine, cheese, bread and kimchi. Producing the molecules in large fermentation tanks rather than using traditional agriculture has several advantages such as providing a stable supply for production of animal and plant-based products as well as offering a cleaner and sustainable solution with reduced environmental impact.
Source: Food Navigator-USA
Founded in 2014, Perfect Day is among the biotech innovators exploring the power of molecular engineering and laboratory agriculture to provide an alternative to traditional dairy production. Based in Berkeley, California, the company modified a strain of yeast to produce proteins that make up 95% of milk: alpha-s1-casein, alpha-s2-casein, beta-casein, kappa-casein, beta-lactoglobulin and alpha-lactalbumin. The engineered strains placed in tanks where it metabolizes sugars, secreting the four casein and two whey proteins as a result of the fermentation process. These proteins are then filtered from the yeast using typical techniques of the dairy industry and mixed with vitamins, minerals, sugars and oils to produce milk that is completely animal-free. Earlier this year, Perfect Day released a line of ice cream using their lab-produced dairy. It was sold out only a few hours after launching.
Targeting another challenge in the food sector is Clara Foods. The San Francisco-based biotech also founded in 2014 is using engineered yeast fermentation to produce proteins found in eggs. Their main product is a foamy egg white alternative for baking that is free of antibiotics and generates less waste than current methods – up to 2000 liters of water are necessary to produce only a dozen eggs.
Among the greatest challenges in food industry is providing a solution to the growing demand for meat. Plant-based products, such as veggie burgers and sausages, may be an alternative but lack the appealing meaty taste of animal protein. Impossible Foods, another San Francisco biotech, found a solution for this problem. They identified that heme, an iron-carrier molecule, is essential for the taste of a typical beef burger. Heme is found not only in the hemoglobin of red blood cells of animals but also in plants, bound to a similar protein called leghemoglobin.
The group engineered a strain of yeast with soy genes to produce large quantities of leghemoglobin in fermentation tanks. This plant protein is added to a mixture of coconut, potatoes and wheat to produce a fully plant-based and meaty-tasting burger that releases less than 87% greenhouse gas emission for production than the traditional beef patty. The Impossible Burgerreached the market in 2016 and has become increasingly popular, even facing a surge in demand this year.
The increased demand for alternatives to animal-based proteins has even attracted the attention of large companies in the biotech space. Gingko Bioworks, a synbio group from Boston, Massachusetts, recently launched a company exclusively dedicated to identifying new alternative proteins. Motif FoodWorks will take advantage of Gingko's platform to identify new proteins from animal products, and their encoding genes, to engineer microorganisms that will produce the next generation of animal-free products by fermentation.
Source: Nutraceuticals World
And it is not only animal products that pose great challenges to the current food industry. Several compounds of plant origin used for flavouring also face growing demand. This is the case of vanillin, the main component of vanilla flavour, and nootkatone, which gives the typical smell of grapefruit. Both compounds can be extracted from natural plant sources, but shortages in raw materials often limit production. By contrast, current industrial production of vanillin and nootkatone requires use of highly toxic components that are harmful to the environment. Since 2004, Evolva is using yeast to address these issues. This biotech headquartered in Switzerland developed yeast strains to sustainably synthesize large amounts of vanillin and nootkatone through fermentation. Currently, the company applies a similar process to produce a wide variety of plant compounds not only for food but also for cosmetic and agricultural purposes.
Whether it is tackling limitations in supply chain or coming up with environmentally-friendly alternatives to current techniques, yeast engineering is a versatile tool to address challenges in food production. As new companies launch and new products are developed, it is an exciting time to see the innovative ways biotechs will use synbio to shape the future of modern food industry.
Dance A. 2017. Engineering the animal out of animal products. Nature Biotechnology. 35(8):704-707.
Gallage NJ, Møller BL. 2015. Vanillin–bioconversion and bioengineering of the most popular plant flavor and its de novobiosynthesis in the vanilla orchid. Molecular Plant. 8:40-57.
Fraser RZ et al. 2018. Safety evaluation of soy leghemoglobin protein preparation derived from Pichia pastoris, intended for use as a flavor catalyst in plant-based meat. International Journal of Toxicology. 37(3):241-262.
About the author:
Eduardo Gutierrez is an evolutionary biologist with a passion for research and science communication. He believes in the power of engaging writing to make science accessible and interesting for everyone. With a background in molecular biology and evolution, he also likes to keep up with the latest developments in the scientific world.