Biofabrication: Using bacteria to produce animal feed

Project AnaPro, which launches in September at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, aims to further develop the anaerobic cultivation method and explore whether hydrogen and CO2 can be used instead of organic energy sources. Photo: Norwegian University of Life Sciences
Project AnaPro, which launches in September at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, aims to further develop the anaerobic cultivation method and explore whether hydrogen and CO2 can be used instead of organic energy sources. Photo: Norwegian University of Life Sciences

A new method for using bacteria to produce animal feed – or plastic or medicine – is in the works at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

“This is truly a completely new invention,” says researcher and project manager, Linda Bergaust. Her team, including inventor, Professor Lars Bakken, and Professor, Svein Jarle Horn, is one step closer to a solution that can help produce as much of what we need – from animal feed to medicine to plastic – using bacteria in a more efficient way than has been tried so far.

With this method you can, in principle, grow food in the Sahara; you no longer require agricultural land.

Researcher and project manager, Linda Bergaust, at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Photo: Norwegian University of Life Sciences
Researcher and project manager, Linda Bergaust, at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Photo: Norwegian University of Life Sciences

The scientists have received 10 million Danish kroner (US$1.6 million) to further develop their innovation.

Biofabrication

“We are facing numerous challenges in feeding the growing population. This kind of technology has the potential to uncouple a range of bioproducts from petroleum-based energy sources, climate, weather and season. With this method you can, in principle, grow food in the Sahara; you no longer require agricultural land,” Bergaust explains.

Using bacteria and other microbes to produce goods, feed and medicines has been dubbed “biofabrication” and has been tested in various formats around the world, although the industry is still in its infancy.

Bacteria that eats CO2 while building new biomaterials

The team aims to use a different type of bacteria than those that have been used so far, and by developing this new method, they hope to contribute to making it much easier and cheaper to build large quantities of cell material.

Several bacterial species grow without a need for oxygen and instead draw energy from other substances in the environment. This is called anaerobic respiration and inspired the project’s new name, AnaPro. These species, some of which consume CO2, will now be tested by Bergaust and her colleagues for their suitability to be used for biofabrication.

Growing biomass from thin air

All About Feed spoke to Bergaust who explained: “Only a minority of the species that will be tested consume CO2. Most depend on simple organics for carbon and energy, such as glucose (they are heterotrophic). What they all have in common is they are denitrifiers, respiring nitrate instead of oxygen. Some are so-called autotrophs, capable of fixing CO2 using nitrate and hydrogen (H2) for energy generation. We will explore both heterotrophic and autotrophic denitrifiers. Hopefully, this will take us one step closer to growing biomass from “thin air” and independent of oxygen, with a net uptake of CO2.”

She explains that the cultivation of bacteria, algae and fungi for use in feed, pharmaceutical products and the like is not new, but common to previous methods is that they take up oxygen for growth and so production is limited by oxygen supply.

Patent pending

Although many of the details are being kept under wraps, the team is confident that they are on track to solving problems – such as an inability to control pH during the cell cultivation – faced by previous experiments.

“We have managed to grow bacteria to high cell density, but we expect to make it even higher. This is what we have received funding for; to further develop the method and search for new organisms for more efficient production of biomass,” says Bergaust.

Berkhout
Natalie Berkhout Freelance journalist