Katelijine Bekers: A day in the life of the microbe that wants to replace your meat
A scientist by training, Bekers was enjoying another fermented product — beer — with some friends when she was struck by an idea. Why not use that ancient technique to address a modern challenge: producing enough protein for a global population that’s set to reach 9.8 billion by mid-century — and doing it in a fast, affordable and sustainable way.
She co-founded MicroHarvest in 2021 to do just that. The German company has secured support from investors including Astanor Ventures and Happiness Capital and this year won a BloombergNEF Pioneers award for climate tech innovators with big potential.
“The opportunities are out there in nature,” says Bekers. “We’re only scratching the surface.”
Protein is critical to a healthy diet, but producing meat is a lengthy and inefficient process. It takes months, if not years, to breed and rear a calf or lamb, and vast areas of precious farmland to feed them. Besides, consumers worried about health, cruelty and environmental impact are increasingly looking for planet-friendly alternatives.
MicroHarvest is one of a handful of early-stage investigating companies microbes, which exist in single-celled form, as a potential solution. Microbes are prevalent in nature; they’re found everywhere from the poles to the equator, and from mountain peaks to the sea floor and they’re already part of our diet. Humans have used bacteria for centuries to produce nutritionally-rich foods including yogurt, cheese, kefir and kimchi. Best of all, they proliferate exponentially under the right conditions.
The Hamburg-based biotech startup claims it’s found a formula that will allow it to grow fermented microbes on an industrial scale. years for animals,” says Seren Kell, an expert specializing in sustainable proteins at the Good Food Institute, a non-profit.
Fermented protein can also be produced in a bioreactor anywhere, anytime, easing the tension between food production and the need to preserve forests and reduce planet-warming emissions.
The livestock industry is responsible for roughly 15% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, partly because ruminant animals like cows and sheep belch methane. If the world replaces 20% of beef with fermented substitutes, it could also save half the forests that otherwise would be cleared for cattle ranching, a 2022 study published by Nature estimated.
While plant-based proteins and cell-grown meat also offer an alternative to rearing animals for slaughter, experts say diversification is key.
“Exploring different approaches is important, as there isn’t likely to be one solution to meeting global demand and consumer preferences,” says Mark Turner, deputy head of the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland in Australia, a major producer of beef.
Fermented protein also has an edge over its alt-protein rivals: While it has yet to mimic conventional steak in texture, taste and look, turning a teaspoon of bacteria into a jar of ready-for-consumption protein powder requires no more than 24 hours . By contrast, it usually takes weeks to cultivate cell-grown meat and even longer to grow soybeans or peas used in most plant-based mince or burger offerings.
MicroHarvest’s ultimate plan is to bring the protein from factory to fork in a matter of hours. But first up: it’s making a protein booster for fish and shrimp feed.
Here’s a look at one of the world’s fastest protein production processes:
The fermentation process begins with that single teaspoon of bacteria. The microbes are removed from a “cell bank” — in this case a freezer set to -80 degrees Celsius (-112 Fahrenheit) — and placed in a glass bioreactor filled with a liquid medium to support fermentation. Bekers wouldn’t specify what bacterial strains the startup uses but says they’re collected from natural environments including soil and water.
Just like humans who need nourishment to grow, MicroHarvest’s microbes feed on sugar derived from agricultural residue. By adjusting nutrient inputs, temperature and the level of acidity and oxygen supply in the bioreactor, scientists enable the microbes to proliferate in a controlled way. As the process gets underway, the laboratory in Hamburg is enveloped by a pungent odor reminiscent of a brewery.
Five hours after the microbes were placed in the bioreactor, they’re ready to be harvested. Scientists separate the biomass from the liquid, inactivate it with a hot bath, and evaporate any excess water before grinding what remains into the final product: A small jar of protein powder.
MicroHarvest’s fermented protein tastes like a mix of miso paste and Vegemite, a spread made from brewer’s yeast and popular in Australia. Bekers says her product contains as much as 70% protein, surpassing beef, which is typically about a quarter protein. The company aims to sell the powder as a protein booster to factories manufacturing aquatic feed and pet fare before expanding its offering to suppliers of human-grade food.
But none of that can happen until MicroHarvest proves its scalability. It’s building a small pilot facility in Portugal for product sampling. Once the startup fine-tunes its technology and clears regulatory hurdles, Bekers says it will start mass production of fermented proteins, possibly as soon as this year.
“There are so many microbes out there in the world that can produce magnificent things,” says Bekers. “We’ve only used a couple of them in industrial biotechnology.” —With Eriver Hijano