Microbes: Part 2, #21
Microbe x climate: startups tackling climate change with microbes
November 25, 2021
I hope you learnt a lot from the Microbes: Part 1 - deep dive last week! Part 1 is intended to give you an introduction to the fascinating world of microbes.
This week, we continue with Part 2 and focus on tackling climate change with microbes. We’ll go through a bunch of exciting startups that are utilizing microbes to solve the climate crisis.
Before we dive again into the world of microbes, I (or should I say we!) have some exciting news to share…
🧠New contributor - Matteo!
Survivaltech.club has its first contributor, Matteo Guscetti!
Here’s a word from Matteo:
Hello dear reader, I am Matteo. Nice to meet you!
My mission is to support and empower the next generation of climate tech leaders to solve the climate crisis. I strongly believe that science and innovation are the answer to this emergency and that the time to act is now!
On a personal level, I am currently wrapping up my studies at ETH Zürich in Data Science. I try to be continuously exposed to the startup scene through awesome projects like Survivaltech.club and Wingman Campus Fund (WCF). At WCF, we discover and financially support tech startups in Switzerland.
I bumped into Survivaltech.club’s newsletter over the internet. After a few months of reading it, I decided to contribute to this enthusiastic community. Thanks to Pauliina’s willingness to give this collaboration a shot, here I am!
You’ll hear from Matteo in the upcoming weeks. His deep dives and interviews are already on their way!
I am personally super excited to start building Survivaltech.club with someone. It has also led me to think about the future of Survivaltech.club. More about that soon :)
Now, let’s turn to startups that are solving climate change with microbes!
🌍Microbe x climate startups
As we learnt in Part 1 -deep dive on microbes, our humankind already uses microbes in various industries (food production, wastewater treatment, pharmaceutics etc.).
With recent advancements in biotechnology (like CRISPR), startups are now bringing novel solutions to the market. For example, several startups use microbes as production machinery for animal-free dairy products, proteins, fats, materials, chemicals, and even coffee!
🧀Animal-free dairy products
This group of startups are replacing cows as the production machines of dairy products. Instead of cows, they are using microbes to produce dairy products.
Now you may ask: “aren’t we already using microbes to produce, for example, cheese today?”
Yes, you’re correct! Nowadays, we use microbes as assistants in the cheese-making process. Bacteria break down lactose, milk sugar and, as a result, produce lactic acid. This lactic acid makes the milk proteins clump together and form cheese. [This Youtube video gives an excellent overview.]
What these startups are doing is that they are creating proteins found in milk, casein and whey, with microbes. Microbes are genetically programmed to produce these proteins.
Why should we produce animal-free dairy products?
Global dairy production emits 2.1 Gt/CO2e every year. That’s approximately 4% of all the greenhouse gases.
The dairy farms don’t only emit only carbon dioxide (CO2) but also methane (CH4) and nitrous oxides (N2O). Over a 100-year timescale, one ton of CH4 causes a 28 times stronger warming effect than CO2. Furthermore, one ton of N2O is 265 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 over a 100-year timescale. [Read more at Our World in Data.]
[Read more about methane in Survivaltech.club’s deep dive on methane.]
Compound Foods is making coffee with microbes. They have identified the compounds that give coffee its characteristic aromas, flavors, and effect. Compound Foods is now producing these compounds with the help of genetically engineered yeast cells.
Why should we make coffee with microbes?
Firstly, over 9.5 billion kilograms of coffee is produced annually, and the demand is expected to triple by 2050. That’s a lot of coffee!
Producing and exporting one kilogram of coffee in conventional means emits on average 15 kg of CO2e. (In this study, the coffee was produced in Brazil and Vietnam and exported to the UK.)
Secondly, suppose we want to continue enjoying our morning coffee in the future (especially Finns are notoriously heavy coffee drinkers.). In that case, we need to come up with new ways of making it. About 50% of the land we now use to grow our coffee will likely be unproductive by 2050 as our planet warms up. (Of course, I hope we can stop the warming before that.)
This group of startups are making protein-rich food for humans and feed for fish.
Solar Foods and Air Protein are making protein out of air. This may sound like magic, but it’s true, thanks to microbes!
Both Solar Foods and Air Protein use a type of microbe called hydrogenotrophs. These microbes require carbon dioxide and hydrogen to grow. Once the microbes have multiplied, they can be turned into a fine protein powder. This protein powder has all the essential amino acids that we humans need!
Watch below a great TED-talk by Dr. Lisa Dyson, Founder & CEO of Air Protein.
EniferBio, on the other hand, produces fish feed out of fungi. They aim at replacing soybean with their “PEKILO” mycoprotein in fish feed.
Read more about EniferBio in a recent article on Bloomberg.
Why should we and fish eat microbes?
Food production accounts for over one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions.
As we learnt in Survivaltech.club’s deep dive on the forest, we’ve turned half of the world’s habitable land for agricultural use. Furthermore, 77%(!) of this land in agriculture is used to grow livestock or to grow feed for the livestock.
We have 1.5 billion cows, 1 billion pigs, 1 billion sheep, and 19 billion chickens on this planet.
It’s needless to say that this is unsustainable. Therefore, humankind must come up with novel ways of producing proteins. Alternative proteins are crucial to achieve this.
These startups are making fats with microbes.
C16 Biosciences focuses on the production of palm oil with microbes. [Read more about C16 Biosciences’ approach on BBC.]
Melt & Marble and Motif have their focus on producing animals fats.
Finally, Circe Bioscience is taking a broader focus and claims to have a platform for producing a range of different fats, from cocoa butter to animal fats
Why should we make fats with microbes?
Production of vegetable fats requires vast amounts of land. In 2018, over 300 million hectares of land was used to grow vegetable oil crops.
Turning once biodiverse primary forest into monoculture of plantations is detrimental to the land’s biodiversity and CO2 sequestration.
Now, imagine that we can produce these fats in fermenters. These fermenters are vertical tanks and allow efficient fat production/area ratio. [The fermenters are very similar to the ones we already use today in beer or yogurt production.] Perhaps we could reforest some of the vegetable oil fields?
On the other hand, animal fats can make plant-based meat taste better and help their faster adoption to mass markets.
🧪Materials + Chemicals & Fuels
This last group of “microbe x climate startups” produce materials, chemicals, and fuels with the help of tiny microbes.
- Materials: Mango Materials, OzoneBio, MycoWorks
- Materials + Chemicals & Fuels: Visolis, Beworm
- Chemicals & Fuels: Phycobloom, LanzaTech
Here are a few picks from the list:
Mango Materials makes a biodegradable polymer called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) out of waste methane gas. They do this interestingly with the help of methanotrophs, a type of bacteria that consumes methane.
OzoneBio produces adipic acid with microbes. Adipic acid is used to make nylon, a widely used synthetic textile.
Beworm currently analyzes bacteria and fungi that can break down the world’s most common plastic (polyethylene). The resulting material can then be used again, for example, to produce bioplastics.
LanzaTech is using microbes to turn waste gases into fuels and chemicals. Here’s a great Youtube video about their process.
Why should we make materials, chemicals, and fuels with microbes?
To put it simply, we can reduce our dependency on fossil fuels with these methods! As we know, the production of plastics and synthetic textiles are heavily dependent on fossil fuels, not to mention the production of fuels and chemicals.
These novel ways of production are steering our way into a future where our humankind’s survival from climate change is possible.
Which microbe x climate startups did I miss? Write them in the comments section on Substack, or send an email to me!
I hope this deep dive gave you a good overview of how people are tackling climate change with tiny yet so powerful microbes.
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See you soon, Human!
- Bunn, C., Läderach, P. Rivera, O. O. and Kirschke, D. (2015). A bitter cup: climate change profile of global production of Arabica and Robusta coffee. Climatic Change, 129, pp. 89-101. Link.
- Crippa, M., Solazzo, E., Guizzardi, D., Monforti-Ferrario, F., Tubiello, F. N. and Leip, A. (2021). Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions. Nature Food, 2, pp. 198-209. Link.
- Nab, C. and Maslin, M. (2020). Life cycle assessment synthesis of the carbon footprint of Arabica coffee: Case study of Brazil and Vietnam conventional and sustainable coffee production and export to the United Kingdom. Geo: Geography and Environment, 7(2). Link.
- Ritchie, H. and Roser, M. (2020). CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Link.
- Rotz, C. A. (2017). Modeling greenhouse gas emissions from dairy farms. Journal of Dairy Science, 101(7), pp. 6675-6690. Link.
- Thornton, A. (2019). This is how many animals we eat each year. World Economic Forum. Link.
- de Vries et al. (2019). Entry Points for Reduction of greenhouse Gas Emissions in Small-Scale Dairy Farms: Looking beyond Milk Yield Increase. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 3(49). Link.