FINLAND – In an endeavour to revolutionize sustainable food production, Solar Foods, a Finnish food-tech startup has embarked on an ambitious project that utilizes genetic engineering to create milk protein from carbon dioxide (CO2) and renewable electricity.

The Finland-based company, in collaboration with academic partners, has secured a substantial US$5.9 million grant from the European Innovation Council (EIC) to fund the four-year venture, named the “Hydrocow” project.

Meanwhile, Solar Foods is spearheading a consortium that includes esteemed institutions like the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, RWTH Aachen University in Germany, and FGen, a subsidiary of Ginkgo Bioworks in Switzerland.

The primary objective of this consortium is to develop a biotechnology platform that leverages hydrogen oxidizing bacteria (HOB) genetically engineered to naturally produce beta-lactoglobulin, a major whey protein found in cow’s milk.

According to Dr. Arttu Luukanen, Senior Vice President at Solar Foods and the project coordinator, the microbial platform will seek to transform carbon dioxide into valuable components such as lactoferrin, casein, enzymes, or various proteins with diverse functions.

“These resulting ingredients could be employed in the food and beverage sector, effectively diminishing its environmental impact,” he said.

The Hydrocow project’s approach will involve a Design-Build-Test-Learn cycle, with RWTH Aachen University designing a comprehensive metabolic model for the HOB.

The University of Groningen will then employ modern genetic modification techniques to incorporate an intra-cellular protein secretion mechanism into the HOB.

The FGen screening platform will subsequently identify the most efficient strains for protein secretion, which will be validated by Solar Foods in autotrophic growth conditions.

This innovative method will streamline metabolic pathways within the cell, enabling it to utilize hydrogen-derived energy and CO2 for protein production.

Previously, Solar Foods had received regulatory approval for its microbial protein-rich powder, Solein, produced through a similar bioprocess using CO2 and electricity.

Hydrogen oxidizing bacteria (HOBs) have emerged as prime candidates for sustainable microbial protein production due to their nutritional value and simple metabolic requirements.

“Beta-lactoglobulin was chosen to be the first protein to attempt secretion with, but the same engineering principles could be applied to almost any protein-based product,” Dr. Arttu emphasized.

The technology’s carbon fixation capabilities without the need for sunlight will offer higher growth rates, and significantly reduced land, freshwater, and mineral requirements.

“We are taking things one step further by not just removing the animal from the equation but removing all arable land from the equation by trying to build a protein production platform that takes CO2 directly as input for the protein instead of sugar or other higher-value carbon sources that heterotrophic microbes prefer.”

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