Marine Microbes Could Deliver Sustainable Nutrients for Supplements and Animal-Free Meat

Marine Microbes Could Deliver Sustainable Nutrients for Supplements and Animal-Free Meat
A cross section of a plant-based patty with a meaty taste, taken on December 28, 2021. (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

South Australia's pristine coastal waters are home to a fungus-like microbe that may be a key future ingredient in nutritional supplements, animal-free meat, medicines, and biofuels, researchers at Flinders University in South Australia have found.

Medical biotechnology researcher at Flinders University’s College of Medicine and Public Health, Associate Professor Munish Puri, said in a release on Saturday that the global market for nutritional supplements is increasing in value, with more people turning to them for improved health.

“However, our current sources of these products—namely animals including sea creatures—are not sustainable in the long run, so there is a need to search for alternative sources of protein and lipids required in their production," he said.

In a paper published in the journal Trends in Biology, Puri and colleagues say that a group of marine microbes called thraustochytrids prove a valuable source of these nutrients and can be used for multiple purposes.

“By tuning the thraustochytrids through precision fermentation, we can produce single-cell oil (SCO), which can be used by the nutraceutical industry for producing supplements and other nutraceuticals, with the added advantage that it doesn’t require agricultural land and can be cultivated in a controlled environment, keeping the SCO free from contamination,” Puri said.

Single-cell oils are edible oils from single-celled microorganisms, primarily yeasts, fungi, and algae.

“We also know that thraustochytrids can produce a wide range of high-value bioproducts, such as omega-3 fatty acids, squalene (used in cosmetics and vaccines), exopolysaccharides (used in pharmaceuticals), enzymes, and aquaculture feed, pigments, and lipids suitable for biodiesel composition.”

The team said that through the integration of bioprocessing, fermentation, and advanced manufacturing, thraustochytrids also prove a viable ingredient for economically sustainable industrial-scale production of plant-based meats.

“To produce plant-based meats, it requires proteins, nutrients and fats. Thraustochytrids are an oleaginous (oily) microorganism that produces high lipid (fat) content and it is expected that these fats will mimic the structure of animal fats, enhancing the sensory properties of plant-based meats and confer a delicious taste,” Puri said.

“With the growth in popularity of vegan and vegetarian diets, alongside concerns about the sustainability of our agricultural industries and its impact on fossil fuel emissions, we can see that finding alternatives to animal products is a major growing market," he said.

Puri and his Flinders University team have endorsed a partner agreement with Nourish Ingredients Pty Ltd, to further develop animal-free meat products.

The project has been awarded around $2.8 million through the federal government's Cooperative Research Centre Projects Grants, which back short-term multi-institutional collaborative research projects.

“We are looking to develop an algal production system that can provide a predictable and environmentally friendly alternative to animal sources and can serve growing vegetarian markets in Australia,” Puri said.