Microbe- and Air-Based Protein Could Be the Food of the Future

lab-grown protein powder produced near helsinki

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A Finnish company has crafted a new protein from air, water, and electricity, The Huffington Post reported last week. Living microbes are grown in a lab and fed nutrients from the air to produce an edible protein powder. Will people in future generations thrive on it?

Close up of fake meat burger in woman's hands
Advances in food technology are leading to new ways of developing food sources. Photo by Joshua Resnick / Shutterstock

According to the HuffPost piece, Solar Foods’ new protein powder—Solein—is created in a process that may be familiar to consumers. “The protein is made using living microbes that are then grown in a fermenter in a process similar to brewing beer,” the article said. “The microbes are fed with carbon dioxide, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen—all taken from the air.” It produces a liquid that is then dried to produce a “yellow, flour-like” powder.

Futuristic movies and cartoons have often depicted the food of tomorrow as an entire meal in pill form, impossibly shrunken main courses that swell to normal size with a drop of water, and so on. With Solein being developed completely free of the use of agriculture, strange new foods like lab-grown proteins could soon turn from science fiction into science fact.

Sustaining Our Future

In order to reach a future of new food opportunities for items like Solein, humanity has to solve a few practical problems first.

“The U.N. has identified three issues that it sees as the most critical to achieve a sustainable nutritional future,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “These issues are environmental impact, feeding a growing population, and reducing poverty.”

Dr. Crittenden said that, regarding environmental impact, current crops aren’t ecologically sustainable. Maintaining farmland takes up 70 percent of our fresh water use and causes 24 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. Second, the growing population of the planet is leading to what’s called a “food gap.”

“The basic point made by demographers and food scientists is that as the population grows, so does demand,” Dr. Crittenden said. “It’s not a fixed system; the food gap then is the estimated gap in production between the amount of food that the world is projected to need and the amount that is projected to be able to be produced.”

She added that the World Resources Institute estimates that by 2050, the world will need nearly 70 percent more food than it had developed 15 years ago. This increase in need ties in with reducing poverty. One way to grow more food is to empower farmers, “particularly [the] poorest ones who live in the developing world and lack access to resources in many sustainable practices,” added Dr. Crittenden.

Fighting for the Future

Food technology has led to some innovative, if not a bit strange, creations. One example is GMOs—genetically modified organisms. “Also called ‘transgenic modification,’ this process involves extracting the DNA from one species and artificially placing it into the genes of a different plant or animal,” Dr. Crittenden said. “The World Health Organization lists a few examples of biofortified crops. Crops like rice, wheat, beans, maize, sweet potato, and legumes can be biofortified with iron, zinc, provitamin A, amino acids, and protein.”

Another innovation of food technology is lab-grown meat, akin to the newly developed protein powder Solein.

“One estimate suggests that at least 50 labs worldwide are currently working on cultured meat research,” Dr. Crittenden said. “The first lab-grown hamburger was cooked and consumed in 2013 in London. In addition to meat that has been grown in a test tube, there’s also ongoing research to produce meat using 3-D printers.”

Companies are even producing bread that’s grown from the spent grains that beer breweries would otherwise throw away.

The future of food availability and ways to produce it may be uncertain, but the factor most likely to change is how it’s made, not which physical form it takes. At least for now, cartoon micro-meals are off the table.

Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.