Science

Microbes anyone? Study outlines huge potential of solar-powered protein

Microbes anyone? Study outline...
A sample of edible protein powder grown from microbes
A sample of edible protein powder grown from microbes
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A sample of edible protein powder grown from microbes
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A sample of edible protein powder grown from microbes
A schematic of a potential microbial protein farm, which is predicted to require far less land and resources than traditional agriculture
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A schematic of a potential microbial protein farm, which is predicted to require far less land and resources than traditional agriculture
A diagram showing how adding microbial protein sources to our food
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A diagram showing how adding microbial protein sources to our food system could take the strain off of plant and animal sources
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Sadly agriculture isn’t the most efficient process, requiring huge amounts of land and resources, and as the human population grows, our food supply will be put under increasing stress. But a new study has shown that farming protein from microbes could be a more sustainable and efficient system.

The current food system is centered on growing crops, which require plenty of natural resources like water, sunlight, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and of course land. Much of that produce directly feeds humans, but some of it is first funneled into another step – animals, who also require land and water before they go on to provide food for humans.

But a new food source could be added to make the whole process more efficient – microbes. Using the same kinds of resources, microbes can be farmed to produce a biomass that can be processed into an edible powder rich in protein and other nutrients. This could be fed to livestock, or made into food for human consumption, reducing the need for plant crops to be grown.

“We expect that microbial protein will also be beneficial as a supplement to our diets, since it provides a high-quality protein source composed of all essential amino acids, as well as vitamins and minerals,” says Dorian Leger, first author of the study. “This technology has the potential to support food production while preventing damage to the environment. Current farming methods contribute to polluted ecosystems and depleted water reserves worldwide.”

A schematic of a potential microbial protein farm, which is predicted to require far less land and resources than traditional agriculture
A schematic of a potential microbial protein farm, which is predicted to require far less land and resources than traditional agriculture

But is it practical? For the new study, a team led by scientists at Göttingen University modeled large-scale microbial food production facilities, analyzing energy requirements for each step along the way, and investigating different setups and types of microbes.

The modeled facilities would make use of renewable energy sources. Carbon dioxide is captured from the air outside and, using electricity supplied from solar cells, converted into food for microbes in a bioreactor. They in turn produce the biomass that can be processed into food.

The team found that per kilogram, producing microbial protein only required 10 percent of the land of soybeans, the most efficient plant crop. Water use is also reduced, and the need for fertilizer is removed entirely.

Microbial farms could also make use of areas that aren’t suited for traditional agriculture, such as deserts. The models even showed that the system was still efficient enough at higher latitudes where there isn’t as much sunlight available.

A diagram showing how adding microbial protein sources to our food
A diagram showing how adding microbial protein sources to our food system could take the strain off of plant and animal sources

Of course this protein powder won’t be a suitable substitute for every plant crop – the team points out that things like sugar beet aren’t usually grown to be eaten directly but for other uses in the food industry. But microbial protein could reduce the need (and environmental impact) of things like soy and grains that are grown as livestock feed.

It’s unlikely to be a silver bullet to the issue of food security, but microbial protein could be just one adjustment of many we need to make in our future diets. Others may include eating insects and growing meat in the lab.

The research was published in the journal PNAS.

Source: Göttingen University

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12 comments
12 comments
riz
It's a single-celled protein combined with synthetic aminos, vitamins, and minerals. Everything the body needs


Mouse: It doesn't have "everything the body needs"...
Catweazle
Sorry, I'm bot going to stop eating luscious steaks!
I subscribe to the theory that consumption of food should be not only necessary but pleasurable.
In any case, I thought we were supposed to eschew ultra-highly processed foods - and it doesn't come any more ultra-highly processed than this!
paul314
For so many of the crops grown for food we already spend enormous amounts of energy processing them into forms bearing no resemblance to the original foodstuff, so why should it matter if the raw material is swapped out?
Aross
The problem is not an inability to grow more and more food. The problem is over population.
bwana4swahili
Producing more food and environmental concerns would be a non-issue if world population was 5-6 billion less! Let's work on population control or mother nature will do it for us.
McDesign
"Take your protein pills and put your helmet on . . ."
Signguy
Excuse me, but aren't they describing a high quality vitamin supplement?
Nelson Hyde Chick
We are going to have to take more and more herculean efforts to accommodate more and more people this planet desperately does not need. Sadly with current technology an earth of three to four billion of us could be an Eden, approaching eight billion things are going bad fast and an Earth of nine to ten billion humans will just be one huge living Hell.
Luis Machado
Paul314 is right! And it will be become cheaper than traditional agriculture. We will not even notice in many processed foods when big food corporations decide to do so.
Phil
We cannot devote all the planet's potential arable & pasture lands to food production, it's a recipe for ecological collapse. Human overpopulation & overconsumption are the fundamental problems for all species. The Sixth extinction is accelerating.
Measures such as the one outlined are necessary stop-gaps until humans, or nature, exercise drastic population control measures. The current pandemic exemplifies nature's population control strategies. Wildfires, droughts, floods, plant diseases, insect die off are other indicators of a planet in trouble.
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