Microbial-derived Clean Ingredients: The [Future] Sci-Fi Picture of Sourcing?

[An ad sometime down the history timeline] “Recombinant microbe AZ strain 2A1B produces a roasted meat flavour and if a spicy touch is desired, then the strain 3F6R is the perfect candidate. All ingredients are sustainably and ethically manufactured without putting the planet’s biodiversity at risk. Wanna deliver a clean label product? Let the microscopic biological world inspire you.”  

In the quest for safe and clean ingredients that do not deplete or contaminate natural resources, just like plant extractions or certain unsustainable lab chemistries may do, supply chain managers are soon likely to turn to microbes for prospects. In the past decade, the technological breakthroughs in synthetic biology – with a hand of artificial intelligence – have been aiding scientists in cracking major codes in microbial metabolic pathways, and thus molecules synthesis. At least first theoretically, these strides enlarge the possible palette of molecules derived from such invisible microbes, which can be cleverly engineered for a given purpose.This chat becomes somewhat more technical, therefore keep in mind that not all microbial-derived molecules have provenance from GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The bottom line is that until more progress is made in such world where molecules are derived from microbes, a more ethical and sustainable era of sourcing remains patiently asleep.

The future Sci-Fi side of ingredients’ procurement is not that far away though. To give you a field example, take vanillin, the main flavour compound of vanilla. It has seen its demand increased by 3-5% every year.1 Imagine now all the industries using this raw material – that is from food and beverage to personal care and beyond. Now consider that 85% of all vanillin consumed worldwide today has its provenance from a synthetic route using crude oil or wood pulp as feedstocks (2), not really the natural and sustainable route we, consumers, seek. What about the potential of fermentation-derived vanillin then? Humongous. Such an alternative will win certainly the race even if compared to its natural-labeled counterpart, which today is extracted from vanilla beans. The given process is not much more glamorous than the synthetic route due to labor intensive techniques resulting in low yields and thus high prices – around $1500 to $2000 /kg, (1) a jaw-dropping fact yes! Not a surprise that big players are actively racing for alternative biotech solutions.

Until greener days are to come folks, marvel yourselves with the possibility of producing even more complex flavours from non-GMO microbes like the meat ones. Some may raise questions around the reasons behind such business. Well, are you aware that billions of animals – from cows and sheep to pigs, chicken and fish – are used by the food industry for flavour purposes only? (3)  Another jaw-dropping factoid… Meanwhile, rendez-vous at the Israeli website ‘The Mediterranean Food Lab’ for more info. (3)


Not convinced in the biotech revolution yet?



by Fernanda Haffner.

Fernanda is Senior Technology Scout at TechScout

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