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Biomass fermentation: the most flexible alt protein technology?
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Biomass fermentation: the most flexible alt protein technology?

Out of all of the alternative protein technologies, biomass fermentation offers one of the best opportunities to produce protein at scale with little or no processing required to develop a finished product.

Organisms, feedstocks, production processes, and a number of other variables can be adapted to produce a diverse assortment of animal-free alternatives that differ according to function, as well as protein and nutrient content.

Needless to say, high variability presents many challenges when striving to create a distinctive product.

To help you maneuver the complexities, take a deep dive into biomass fermentation. By examining the key variables, we reveal the numerous opportunities it presents for the alternative protein industry and how to harness this exciting technology to your advantage.

Biomass fermentation variables

1. Microbes

Biomass fermentation wouldn’t be possible without microbes, such as bacteria, algae, and fungi. And it’s important that you choose your microbe wisely.

From well-established strains to novel extremophiles, companies can harness the biodiversity of microorganisms as a resource. Microbes can vary in their efficiency, yield, nutritional profile, and functional results. This also means that they will present unique production requirements.

Companies may wish to use a well-documented microbe (e.g. Fusarium venenatum, edible filamentous fungi used in Quorn products) since these tend to already hold GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status and have been used successfully in a number of food applications.

Yellowstone's extremophiles have been the subject of scientific research over recent years and have already yielded interesting strains for use in biomass fermentation

To find a new candidate strain that produces high-quality protein and/or metabolites of interest, companies can browse microbial libraries and databases. Alternatively, some may wish to explore natural areas in search of commercially-viable native organisms by employing a systematic approach known as bioprospecting.

2. Feedstocks

In the same way in which we can’t rely on just filamentous fungi to produce all plant-based meat products, we shouldn’t focus on glucose extracted from corn and wheat as the only feedstock in the biomass fermentation process.

The difficulty lies in finding source materials that don’t require complex treatment in order to be processed into efficient feedstocks. Nevertheless, as technology develops, it has the potential to become agnostic for a variety of carbon sources, such as lignin cellulosic glucose.

What’s more, progress has been made in synthetic biology, whereby microbes can be reprogrammed to feed on a wide variety of substrates. Headway has also been made to utilize side streams from several industries to create circular processes, such as apple pomace and potato wastewater.

Mycelia can be reprogrammed to feed on various by-products and waste streams from agriculture and forestry

3. Production methods

The biomass fermentation process will influence the properties of the final product. Three key approaches include solid-state fermentation (SSF), submerged fermentation (SmF), and liquid-air interface fermentation (LAIF). All three have advantages and disadvantages, influencing factors such as the microbes used, energy costs, yield, and scalability.

In SSF, microorganisms grow on a solid substrate in a temperature and air-controlled fermentation room. SmF involves microbial growth in a liquid cell culture medium, which requires the use of large fermenter tanks.

In the case of LAIF, trays are used to contain the liquid medium; fungi colonize the surface of the medium and then grow downwards as they eat their way toward the bottom. These trays can be set up in vertically stacked layers, much like vertical farming.

Growing microbes in liquid culture requires the use of fermentation tanks

Whether or not aerobic or anaerobic fermentation of biomass is employed depends on the type of microorganism. Again, there are pros and cons to both production methods. For example, anaerobic fermentation can be better economically since it does not require an oxygen supply but it can produce more toxic byproducts than aerobic fermentation, which often delivers higher yields.

4. Nutrition

Perhaps one of the most beneficial aspects from the consumer perspective is that the microbial biomass from the fermentation process is often healthier and more nutritious than its meat counterparts.

Biomass fermentation produces a whole food source that requires very little processing. Many products contain complete protein with an impressive amino acid profile, making them as good as, if not better than, animal (and many plant) sources of protein. By way of illustration, Meati has a PDCAAS score of 1 and a recent study revealed that Quorn is twice as good at building muscle than milk protein.

In addition to protein, microbial biomass often contains plenty of fiber, B vitamins (including B12), and minerals such as potassium, iron, copper, calcium, and zinc. If manufacturers wish to boost the nutrient profile even further, biomass fermentation allows for straightforward enrichment.

5. Flavor

Many manufacturers prefer strains that exhibit neutral flavor profiles, which can then be combined with additional ingredients to emulate the taste of meat or dairy.

There are also a number of fungal species known to taste similar to animal proteins, which could be utilized to create products such as chicken alternatives or plant-based seafood.

6. Textures and product applications

The appeal of biomass fermentation technology is that it can be applied to create a broad range of products, from minced meat to dairy and whole cuts of seafood. Some companies, such as Alver, are even harnessing this technology to create pasta, soups, and sauces.

Depending on the process used, microbial biomass requires minimal or zero processing to produce textures akin to the animal counterparts they aim to replace. No extrusion processes are required and proteins are not modified. Although the products of biomass fermentation can also be used to produce hybrid meat products or as a building block for 3D printed steak.

To use Quorn as an example of the natural texturization capabilities of fungi-based processes, Fusarium venenatum aligns itself into natural fibers. Hyphae (the branching filaments that make up the mycelium of a fungus) are then encouraged to bind together before the biomass undergoes a careful freezing process, whereby the ice crystals expand and create the structure. Small variations to this process can yield entirely distinct products.

Biomass fermentation key takeaways

All things considered, it is clear that biomass fermentation could completely transform the future of the global food system. Its versatility combined with the continuous development of microbial strains, feedstocks, production methods, and fermentation technology will significantly lower costs and lead to more sustainable, circular systems.

For these reasons and more, we expect to witness significant growth in this area over the next few years.

If you’d like to benefit from this progress and wish to learn more, reach out to us at Bright Green Partners. We will clear up any ambiguities regarding the biomass fermentation industry while helping you to design and develop your own value chain.

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