Humans have been harnessing the power of fermentation for a long time, with evidence of fermented alcoholic beverages dating back to 7000 BC. But it has only been in the last couple of decades that precision fermentation – the engineering of micro-organisms like yeast and bacteria to produce complex organic molecules – has been possible. This takes us from a few after-work beers to a capability that could underpin the growth of a sustainable bioeconomy.
Engineering a sustainable future
CSIRO has recently released a National Synthetic Biology Roadmap that looks at how precision fermentation is one application of sophisticated synthetic biology techniques that can help Australian industries increase efficiency and sustainability, reduce costs, and generate new high-margin products. Using engineered biology to replace complex chemical reactions can improve yields, reduce time, and reduce land and water intensity compared to traditional manufacturing approaches.
How could this change what we eat?
As our global population increases, we will need to produce more food, more sustainably, to feed the world and to meet the changing dietary patterns of the modern health- and welfare-conscious consumer. Precision fermentation offers alternatives to complement traditional agricultural production through new products produced with fewer resources.
One example is the Impossible Burger that uses an engineered yeast to produce the heme protein that gives their plant-based patty its meaty flavour and colour. This approach requires 96% less land, 87% less fresh water, and generates 89% fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional beef burgers.
Some Australian start-ups are targeting similar food-related markets, including Nourish, who are engineering new, speciality fats comparable to those found in animal products.
The possibilities for precision fermentation are almost endless. Over the next 15 years, we could see the commercial deployment of more stable alternatives to plant-derived pharmaceutical pre-cursors, the efficient production of compounds for use in products like vaccines and skincare, and the sustainable production of second-generation biofuels and bioplastics.
These opportunities make up a substantial proportion of the $27 billion 2040 opportunity for Australia as estimated in the National Synthetic Biology Roadmap.
Scaling the next bio-revolution
Strong research investments over the past five to 10 years have supported the birth of a range of early-stage Australian start-ups in this space. To reach commercial scale – a key for real world impact for most applications – the next step for these companies is to begin scaling their innovations. Industry, government and research stakeholders consulted through the Roadmap process have noted that Australia lacks a sufficient level of appropriately certified fermentation infrastructure, and the idea of funding and building a new facility alone is a prohibitively expensive prospect for most start-ups.
One major recommendation from the Roadmap involves the need for companies to have shared access to affordable and suitably accredited pilot-scale manufacturing facilities. This could be done through the upgrade of existing pilot scale fermentation facilities or through new builds which can offer a more tailored, fit-for-purpose set up.
Supporting the start-up journey towards commercial feasibility within the Australian landscape will also help raise industry awareness, build critical mass and provide learnings that can be leveraged across other emerging applications.
By streamlining and strengthening how we translate our science into impact, Australia could seek to become a leading supplier of sustainably manufactured products across a range of industries through the expansion of local precision fermentation capabilities.