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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?

Fermentation tanks are used for brewing. ©  iStock

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.

[Opera singing can be heard and an image appears of three croissants being cooked]

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[Image changes to show milk being poured into a glass, and text appears: How much do you know about fermentation?]

Banpreet Kaur Shahi: How much do you know about fermentation?

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You may be familiar with some of its most famous creations, beer, bread and yoghurt.

[Images move through to show a researcher working at a lab bench, and a glass of milk surrounded by a wedge of cheese, an egg, a bowl of yeast, a ruler, a scale, a fermenting vat, and a slice of bread, and text appears: Precision fermentation]

Today researchers are adding a dash of science to make this age-old process new again into what’s called precision fermentation.

[Image changes to show Banpreet Kaur Shahi talking to the camera, and text appears: Banpreet Kaur Shahi, CSIRO, More protein, More sources]

This new food process may hold the key to unlock the future of sustainable food because we need to produce more protein from more sources sustainably to feed a growing world. Let’s tuck in.

[Images move through to show two glass bottles of apple cider being brewed next to a pile of apples, stainless steel fermenters, and bread dough rising in a bowl]

When you think of fermentation you will think of beer growing in a large barrel or bread dough rising in a bowl.

[Image changes to show a researcher working at a lab bench near a large stainless steel fermenter]

Today it’s a very high-tech process.

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Yeast and fungi can be put to work to produce entirely new products like milk or egg proteins or ingredients like meat fats.

[Three ticks appear labelled “Texture”,“Taste”,“Nutritional profile”, and then the image changes to show a cow which splits apart to show text at the centre: Without the animal]

These have the same texture, taste and nutritional profile as the traditional kind but without the animal.

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So, what is fermentation and how has it evolved?

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Fermentation has been used for thousands of years. It uses naturally occurring micro-organisms like yeast to turn one thing into another.

[Images move through to show a glass of beer linked to a bowl of dried yeast, which morphs into a model molecular structure, which morphs into sugar grains, and then into a carbon dioxide molecule]

In beer for example, yeast breaks down glucose triggering a chemical reaction that turns sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

[Image changes to show Banpreet Kaur Shahi talking to the camera]

Fermentation has been evolving for some time now. Now the next evolution of food production is here, precision fermentation.

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What then is precision fermentation and why is it so exciting?

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Precision fermentation has been used extensively since the ‘80s to produce a whole range of high value pharmaceuticals and vitamins and fortified foods. You’re more than likely to have consumed something containing precision fermentation ingredients already.

[Image changes to show Thomas Vanhercke talking to the camera, and text appears: Thomas Vanhercke, CSIRO]

Thomas Vanhercke: It is a technique where we engineer yeast salts so that they start to produce all kinds of functional food ingredients.

[Images move through to show a flow chart of the precision fermentation process on a computer screen, coins pouring into a Savings jar, and bottles moving along a conveyer belt]

Banpreet Kaur Shahi: Thanks to advances in tech the costs of precision fermentation have come down, so much so that it can now be used to produce higher volume low value products like food.

[Image changes to show Dr Geoff Dumsday talking to the camera, and a glass of milk appears on his left, and text appears: Dr Geoff Dumsday, Proteins]

Dr Geoff Dumsday: So, at the moment we are looking at the important proteins that are found in milk and trying to make those without a cow.

[Images move through to show Geoff talking on the right, and images on the left showing Protein 1 and Protein 6 highlighted from ten proteins, data moving through on a computer screen, and a bowl of dried yeast, and text appears: Engineering Process, Yeast Strain]

We identity the proteins that we are interested in in milk and then we engineer the sequences for those proteins to create yeast strains,so it makes those proteins for us.

[Images continue moving through on the left to show a small, medium and very large fermenters, and text appears: Fermenters]

We then go through a process to improve production of those proteins and then we’llscale up tomuch larger connectors to produce enough materialto tests and then ultimately,we’ll scale up to very large volumes, up into the hundreds of thousands of litres, to enable us to produce large amounts that people can actually eat or drink.

[Image changes to show text on a blue screen: What are the possibilities for future foods]

Banpreet Kaur Shahi: What are the possibilities for future foods?

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Thomas Vanhercke: So, what is amazing and exciting about this technology is that we are limited in terms of applications by the limits of our imagination.

[Images move through to show a bottle of Eden Brew milk like liquid being boxed, researchers working in the lab and filling a bottle with the liquid, and a researcher sniffing and then drinking the liquid, and text appears: Milk without the cow]

For example, we are currently working with CSIRO’s startup Eden Brew and helping them produce casein and casein is a weak protein that you can find in cows’ milk and can be used in all kinds of dairy formulations and also ice creams.

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But there is a whole other suite of products that are following suit and that you will likely soon find on the shelves in the supermarket.

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For example, egg white substitutes made without the chicken.

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Lactoferrin which is a kind of a wonder protein that’s been found in breast milk that has a whole lot of positive attributes associated with it, can be used for precision fermentation to add for example, to infant formula but also gelatines that can be made without the need for animals. So, basically the sky is the limit.

[Image changes to show text on a blue screen: Is the idea to make products that replace meat and plant foods?]

Banpreet Kaur Shahi: Is the idea to make products that replace meat and plant foods?

[Image changes to show Thomas talking to the camera]

Thomas Vanhercke: The idea is not to replace more traditional animal and plant-based proteins. The idea is to be able to tap into a broad variety of different sources that can produce proteins sustainably.

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Not just to feed a growing world population but also to be able to address their needs in terms of nutrition and health.

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Now in the end it comes down to being able to offer a broad variety of options and choices to the consumers that match better their desires in terms of dietary patterns and dietary needs.

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Banpreet Kaur Shahi: How sustainable is precision fermentation?

[Images move through to show Thomas talking to the camera, various views of fermenters, a researcher working in the lab, and a liquid in the brewing process]

Thomas Vanhercke: Precision fermentation as a technology holds great promise for the sustainable production of food proteins and food ingredients but of course this needs to be backed by science, so there’s still some work to be done to be able to make sure that we have the data to back up some of these sustainable ethical claims and this will be key to make sure that we have openness towards the consumer but also the trust of the consumer.

[Image changes to show flavoured ice cream being scooped]

Banpreet Kaur Shahi: Standby because ice cream and milk products will soon be on their way to the market.

[Image changes to show Banpreet Kaur Shahi talking to the camera, and then text appears on her left: Eden Brew, Deliciously Animal-Free Dairy]

Our Future Protein Mission has cofounded Australian companies like Eden Brew to bring these to market and they taste surprisingly, just like the real thing.

[Image changes to show a wombat scratching itself while sitting on some grass, and the CSIRO logo and text appears: CSIRO, Thanks for watching]

Precision fermentation is a technique in which microbes are engineered to produce specific proteins that can serve as new food ingredients.

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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).

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