Protein of the future may come from solar-powered microbes

Environmental concerns have driven the formation of a new industry focused on green alternatives to traditional crops and livestock, including plant-based 'meat.' As the plant-based meat alternative industry goes mainstream, researchers continue to investigate new potential ways to feed the world's growing population...and microbes, it turns out, may play a major role.

Microbes are vital to human health and they likewise have long played a part in our food supply. Many common foods are fermented, including cheese and beer, which are made possible by beneficial microbes. These same microbes are able to produce protein and other nutrients that may one day become a staple in human diets.

Researchers with Göttingen University explored this potential and reported their findings in a new study published in PNAS. According to the team, solar panels are key to making the microbial protein more efficient and environmentally friendly, leading to a potentially sustainable low-impact way to feed the world's population.

The research involved creating models of large-scale microbe-based protein production facilities. These models involved facilities that utilized air, water, nutrients, and solar power to grow the microbes, which are then harvested and processed into edible nutrient-rich protein.

Multiple growth strategies and different types of microbes were evaluated and compared with soybean, the most efficient crop plant. In comparison to soybean, the study notes that a kilogram of protein produced by microbes required only 10-percent of the landmass, also minimizing the amount of fertilizer and water needed.

Microbe-based protein can also be produced in colder northern climates that receive less sunshine, according to the researchers, meaning these facilities could potentially be established in places where traditional crops can't be grown — in the middle of a desert, for example.

According to the study's first author Dorian Leger, the microbial protein includes all of the essential amino acids necessary for proper health, and that's in addition to minerals and vitamins. That makes microbial protein a high-quality protein source, one that could be produced and harvested in many places while helping protect the environment.