Australia has a long-standing reputation as a producer of quality proteins. From beef to barramundi and pulses to dairy, our commodities are in high demand both domestically and overseas.
But with the global population expected to increase by two billion people by 2050, it’s time to start thinking about diversifying our sources of protein. CSIRO researchers, in collaboration commercial partners, are at the forefront of efforts to develop and scale up the exciting field of biotechnology called precision fermentation.
What is precision fermentation?
“Fermentation has been used for thousands of years,” says Dr Thomas Vanhercke, a Senior Research Scientist who leads Novel Production Systems within the CSIRO Future Protein Mission.
“Traditional fermentation has been used since ancient times to create products like bread and beer. Biomass fermentation is more recent. Precision fermentation is the newest kid on the food block and has advanced rapidly over the last couple of decades, with a real acceleration in the last few years.”
In the traditional fermentation process, microbial cells such as yeast or fungi are used to convert ingredients into end-products with distinctive texture or flavour - cheese or yoghurt, for example. Biomass fermentation is different in that fungal mycelia are cultivated, harvested, flavoured and then used as a direct protein source. The best-known example of a mycoprotein grown in this way is sold under the brand name Quorn.
Precision fermentation is a technique in which microbes are genetically reprogrammed to produce specific, customised molecules that can serve as new food ingredients. These novel ingredients can be used to enhance the taste, texture, colour or mouthfeel of other food products.
“As well as improving the consumer experience, it’s also possible to use precision fermentation to create ingredients that address other concerns such as sustainability, nutrition or animal welfare,” says Dr Vanhercke.
“Many people may not realise, but chymosin – the major enzyme in calf rennet that is required for cheesemaking – is now almost all derived from fermentation. We don’t actually need to purify this vital ingredient from the animal anymore.”
Nourish Ingredients: using precision fermentation in the real world
One Australian company that is leading the way in precision fermentation is Nourish Ingredients. Nourish is focused on creating animal-free fats that add meat flavour profiles and textures and elevate the taste of plant-based proteins, but leave animals out of the process.
Initially established in 2019 with seed funding from Main Sequence Ventures – a CSIRO-created venture capital fund - and Hong Kong based Horizon Ventures, the company has recently secured $45 million in Series A funding, and now employs around 50 people at its ACT headquarters.
Nourish co-founder and CEO Dr James Petrie, a former CSIRO researcher with expertise in plant oil engineering, established Nourish in order to address what he saw as a significant problem in the plant-based and alternative protein market.
“The industry was trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” says Dr Petrie. “They were producing meat-like proteins that had very un-meat-like properties, and while that means you reach people who have already made the decision to become vegan or vegetarian, you’re not reaching the carnivores. There are plenty of consumers who are aware of issues around sustainability, but aren’t yet ready to sacrifice that tasty eating experience.”
“You really need those fat molecules to give proteins a delicious flavour and texture, continues Dr Petrie. “Vegetable fats and oils have their place in the market, but our approach is to create the same fat molecules as those found in animal, in a way that is more sustainable and animal-free."
Like Dr Vanhercke, Dr Petrie is confident that there is room in the Australian and global markets for both traditional animal proteins and plant-based proteins. As food demand grows, diverse food sources will be critical for feeding the population, and collaborations between research organisations like CSIRO and start-ups like Nourish are a critical part of achieving that.
“As CEO, my work is focused on running the company,” says Dr Petrie. “But I’m a scientist at heart, and doing cool science like this is a lot of fun. As a start-up the goal is to have that science work in the real world. Partnerships like the one between CSIRO and Nourish make sense because they answer the question of what you do with the tech once it has been built. It combines CSIRO’s fundamental strength of R&D with the expertise of an organisation that can make quick and accurate decisions on commercialisation.”
What comes next for precision fermentation?
“The biggest limitation for precision fermentation at the moment is yield,” says Dr Netsanet Shiferaw Terefe, a CSIRO Principal Research Scientist whose research focus is food process engineering.
“It’s a very long process to scale up, and it’s expensive. At the moment the technique is mainly used for niche, high value projects, but the hope is that as we scale up the costs will come down and we will be able to produce at the commodity scale.”
CSIRO’s Protein Roadmap, published in 2022, detailed a number of potential actions that would help with achieving that necessary scale. These included investment in pilot scale food grade fermentation facilities and downstream processing equipment for separation and purification; and collaboration and asset sharing with adjacent sectors.
In the meantime, the focus remains on supporting companies like Nourish, nurturing new opportunities for precision fermentation, and exploring options for novel ingredients.
“It’s great to be in a position where we can use accepted, established methods to explore new opportunities and shape the future of food systems,” says Dr Vanhercke. “Our work is very complementary to more traditional Australian industries like dairy and meat. There will always be a demand for those products and we’re not there to compete; instead, it’s about diversifying, offering consumers more choice, and being able to provide more food to more people. It’s really exciting.”