Microbial Food - The Start of Something New

Tuesday 19 Jan 21


Leonie Johanna Jahn
Co-Principal Investigator of the Bacterial Synthetic Biology Section
DTU Biosustain
+45 93 51 15 54
A new research group at DTU Biosustain is taking part in the microbial food revolution. The goal is to make both food production and food consumption more sustainable. 

Today, global food production stands for 30% of the total carbon emissions, and 70% of the inhabitable land is used for agricultural purposes. Simultaneously, the world’s population will grow in the coming years demanding an even bigger need for food security, whilst developing countries already for a long decade have struggled with malnutrition. To cope with those major challenges, the world is in desperate need of new ways of producing and consuming food. 


A new research direction at The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability is investigating the potential of using microorganisms to produce sustainable food that is both healthy and tastes good. One example could be to use byproducts from food processes which are currently only used for either animal feed, biogas production, or… nothing at all. Those byproducts could be, for instance, rapeseed cake or potato proteins from potato starch production or sugar beet pulp from sugar production.


So, while we are on the cusp of entering a huge transformation where arguments mainly seem to rage about the plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will perhaps soon make those discussions irrelevant. Before long, chances are that our food will not only come from animals or plants but unicellular life. 


“We want to use waste stream products as a starting material for the fermentation of microorganisms. One could imagine that yeast, filamentous fungi, or bacteria can convert biomass into something that is nutritionally valuable, save to consume, and tasty,” says Leonie Jahn, Team Leader at The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability. 


For many, this might represent a rather odd, new reality, but in Indonesia, they already use byproducts from tofu production and ferment it with fungi to develop a product called oncong that for centuries has worked as a replacement for meat. And in the US, scientists from The University of North Carolina used a yeast that was isolated from the gut of a wasp to produce a “bumblebeer” that judged by its merits turned out to have none of the typical funky smells of a sour beer, but instead were floral, fruity and delightfully soft. 


“I think it might be a coincidence that we have only used baker’s yeast for so long and there are probably alternatives which are better suited for microbial food production. Our task will be to exploit the potential of all those microorganisms to produce interesting flavors and convert food waste into eatable products, “says Leonie Jahn. 

Big scientific mapping ahead

But as it is with many things here in life, it takes time when you want to push the boundaries aside. The researchers will now start to characterize why certain bacteria or yeast can use a certain substrate and how each of the different microorganisms can produce texture or taste. At the same time, microbial food safety is also an important matter to address since foodborne diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites cause a considerable disease burden worldwide. For example, it has been estimated by the Center for Disease and Prevention (CDC) that in the US about one million foodborne illnesses caused by known pathogens or unknown agents occur every week. 


However, by using techniques such as genomics, transcriptomics, and proteomics that are all well-known at The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability, the ability to detect, prevent and treat foodborne pathogens is much better than just a few years ago. 


According to Leonie Jahn, it is the ability to cover all the different aspects of microbial food production at once that will make her research succeed in a field that receives plenty of hype both in academia and industry. 


“We have a core facility doing excellent high-throughput analysis allowing us to work with a large strain collection and we have vast knowledge at the Center in both synthetic biology, metabolic engineering, and data science. Thus, we can move things further than other research groups and maybe also act on it faster,” she says. 

Not afraid of GMO hysteria

While there has been a lot of disputes between consumers, farmers, biotechnology companies, and government regulators over the use of food derived from genetically modified crops (GMO) instead of conventional crops, those debates seem less heated when it comes to microbial food production. In Denmark, companies such as Chr. Hansen and Novozymes already develop world-class, natural solutions and ingredients within the food, nutritional and agricultural industries and the importance of the microbiome also seems more obvious for people. 


“Most of the products that we enjoy, such as chocolate, wine, or bread are all based on microbial fermentation, and the products we are aiming for are not different from those. They are novel products, but the principle is the same and hopefully, they are even healthier. I think society is ready,” concludes Leonie Jahn.


The microbial food program is one of three application areas at The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability and will be managed by Professor Morten Sommer and collaboration has already been established with DTU Skylab and both academic and industrial collaborators are expected to come on board in the future.



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