How has fermentation evolved?
For thousands of years, humans have used fermentation to produce food and beverages like bread and beer using natural micro-organisms such as yeast.
Last century saw the rise of biomass fermentation, which uses a similar process to create an edible fungal mycelium that is rich in protein and lots of nutrients.
The next evolution is precision fermentation, a high-tech way of making foods and ingredients.
What is precision fermentation?
Precision fermentation involves engineering a micro-organism like yeast or fungi to produce an animal protein or fat, with the same taste, texture and nutrition as the real kind.
Since the 1980s, precision fermentation has been used extensively to produce a range of high-value pharmaceuticals and vitamins in fortified foods.
For example, it’s been used to create an enzyme found in rennet that’s critical for cheese-making to avoid reliance on animal sources. Similarly, the diabetes treatment insulin is now made within a fermentation tank, so it no longer needs to be sourced from cows or pigs.
Costs have come down in recent years enabling this technology to be used to produce higher volume, lower value products like food.
How do we make ingredients using precision fermentation?
Casein, the unique protein found in dairy milk, can be made without the cow by using precision fermentation.
Precision fermentation works like a high-tech brewing technique. The aim is to create a factory at the cellular level that continues to multiply and grow lots of the casein protein. This is achieved by engineering yeast cells using genetic information from cow’s milk proteins.
It’s first tested in small flasks in the lab where the cells are fed sugar and triggered to start producing the casein ingredient.
Once the process is working well and the casein has the right flavour, taste, nutrition as what’s found in dairy milk, it’s time to scale up. That means increasing production quantities by ten times.
Once a product can be developed cost-effectively at this stage, a company may invest in a commercial plant where they can then grow to produce 10,000 litres or more.
The aim is to make the process more and more efficient, so you can continue to grow quantities to 100,000 litres and beyond. The challenge is to do so cost-effectively and sustainably.
What are the possibilities for future foods?
A suite of new food products are possible using precision fermentation, such as:
- Cow-free dairy milk, ice cream and yoghurt
- Egg proteins made without the chicken
- Lactoferrin for use in infant formula
- Animal-free gelatins.
For example, we are working with spin out Eden Brew on animal-free dairy products.
Why do we need additional protein sources?
The world will need to feed another two billion people by 2050, while continuing to meet consumer dietary needs and preferences.
So we need to produce more protein from more sources, sustainably. That includes traditional animal and plant proteins like meat and legumes, as well as complementary proteins made using innovations like precision fermentation.
Precision fermentation products will provide more choice and options for consumers, such as those with allergies.
How sustainable is precision fermentation?
Precision fermentation holds a lot of promise as a sustainable, low footprint way to make food.
As a small emerging industry, the science still needs to be done to understand how sustainable precision fermentation is. We need evidence to back sustainability claims and this is going to be critical as products make their way to market and is key to maintaining consumer trust.
We ultimately want to see precision fermentation embedded within a truly circular economy. That means finding ways to make use of agricultural and food waste – such as leftover plant material from sugar cane farming – to feed into the fermentation process.
Another aim is to work towards achieving carbon neutral production in future.
How do we ensure precision fermentation products are safe?
Precision fermentation-based food products or ingredients are made in a highly-controlled setting, using the same processes the pharmaceutical industry has used for many products for decades.
In Australia, we have stringent regulatory approval processes to ensure the food and ingredients we make are safe to eat.
Ensuring products meet regulatory standards involves rigorous testing, and in some cases independent assessment by the regulator.
Our science can inform the regulatory process. We develop and provide data to inform safety, allergen and purity assessments.
And for each product, we provide complete transparency of the production process and nature of the genetic change so this can be assessed from a health and safety perspective.
How can industry work with us?
We have expertise across the value chain and can work with companies on:
- opportunity discovery
- strain development and target molecule expression
- pilot-scale fermentation
- downstream processing development
- food formulation and production
- consumer science and clinical trials
- commercialisation and venture support
- science for the regulatory process.
See our precision fermentation expertise and facilities PDF (156 KB) or download the text version TXT (1 KB).