Photo by Kelsey Mirehouse on Unsplash

With the population set to skyrocket to over 9 billion by 2050, companies are scrambling to find new ways to feed our demand for protein in a sustainable (read: non-animal-based) way.

Many are turning to plants, transforming them into everything from burgers to yogurt to scrambled eggs. But when it comes to protein, there are several companies thinking outside the plant kingdom and turning to surprising sources to create these energy-packed building blocks:

Microbes

Sustainable Bioproducts has developed fermentation technology based off of their studies of the extremophile microbes (which can thrive even in, er, extreme conditions) in Yellowstone’s volcanic springs. The company’s scientists replicate the microbes in labs and feed them starches and glycerin. Out comes protein. The microbes’ output is meant to be a versatile building block — it can be savory or sweet, liquid or powder — which can be used to make meat or dairy alternatives.

The protein may come from a lab, but Sustainable Bioproduct’s technology is very different than cellular agriculture (the science behind cell-based meat), which uses animal tissue.

Earlier this week, the Chicago-based company announced a $33 million Series A funding round, led by Silicon Valley-based venture fund 1955 Capital with participation from the venture arms of Archer Daniels Midland and Danone, a climate-focused tech fund backed by Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and others. But don’t rush out to purchase microbe protein just yet — according to the Wall Street Journal we’re still a few years away from sampling Sustainable Bioproducts’ protein.

Yeast

Similar to Sustainable Bioproducts, Perfect Day uses a sort of fermentation process (feeding sugar to genetically modified yeast and bacteria) to create protein. Only instead of making a versatile building block, they’re focused on two very specific proteins: casein and whey, which are two main “ingredients” that make milk taste — and function — like milk.

Combined, the two create a cow-free dairy product to be used to make everything from cheese to yogurt to ice cream. In 2017, Perfect Day pivoted from a B2C to a B2B model, and at the end of last year, the startup partnered with Archer Daniels Midland to scale up the implementation of their technology. Their first product will be whey protein, slated to come to market in the next few years.

Image Credit: JAA TÄMÄ KUVA

Thin Air (sort of)

Before founding Finnish company Solar Foods, researchers from Lappeenranta University of Technology and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland created a single cell protein in a lab using only water, electricity, carbon dioxide, and small organisms in the environment.

Solar Foods recently snagged €2 million (~$2,273,000) in funding from Lifeline Ventures, and is working with the European Space Agency to create a bioreactor that can make food in outer space to feed colonies on Mars. On Earth, the bioreactors could be a new food source that doesn’t put stress on our existing systems.

We don’t know exactly what Solar Food’s protein could be used for (Meat alternatives? Protein shakes? Soylent-like complete meals?), but the company has indicated it expects commercial protein production to start by 2021.

No question — the concept of making protein out of microbes or literal air is fascinating. But as with cell-based meat, I have to wonder about the energy costs — and the cost costs. How much energy does it take to run these new protein sources? And how long will it take before creating protein out of these sources is cost-competitive with making protein from plants?

Of course, if climate change severely reduces agricultural input, as some are predicting it will, then growing soy and wheat might be a lot trickier, and we might have to turn to making protein from the air, extremophile microbes, and animal tissue in a lab. But in the nearer term, these technologies have the potential to feed areas that don’t have access to legitimately delicious plant-based foods — or are struggling to produce enough food, such as communities affected by famine or drought.

It’ll likely be a while before we see (or taste) this technology in our homes or on our grocery shelves. Until then, we’ll have to feed our hunger for sustainable protein with plants. Good thing there are plenty of options.

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