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Fermentation: The future of food and fuel?

Looking for a new, winning microbe is like looking for a needle in a thousand hay stacks.”

Who’d have thought that a microorganism just one micrometer thick could hold the key to producing new kinds of food, fuel and medicine – from renewable natural resources?
Leaves in petri dish

For Henk Noorman and his team at DSM, a process called microbial fermentation has enabled them to use science for societal impact in recent years. Their biggest challenge now: Taking this science to another level and finding better microbes – where the margin for error is approximately zero.

In a discipline where trial and error is a crucial part of the process…isn’t this a little unfair? “This is modern science,” smiles Henk. “At a commercial level, our goal for customers and partners must be to get it right first time – which meant somehow finding a more predictable way to find and then test for new ‘winning microbes’.”

In the case of microbial fermentation, enormous 100,000 litre steel tanks brew a ‘fungal broth’ which in turn is used as the scientific platform for the production of biofuels (instead of oil); food ingredients (rather than animal products); and medicines (instead of chemicals).

When testing for a winning microbe, this process needs to be down-scaled from plant to the lab, where the microbes are fermented in a tiny 10 litre tank.

The challenge? Unless these lab conditions precisely replicate those of the plant…the process fails. And to do that, you need a precise understanding of what’s happening inside a steel tank full of broth so concentrated that just one litre contains a staggering 100 billion microbes…

The solution from Henk and his team – with help from academics in China and Netherlands – was to create a kind of ‘virtual reality’.

Brute force computation power has now entered the field of large-scale fermentation. What does this mean exactly? “For the first time we’ve computed the industrial process in super detail - both the inside of a microorganism and their surroundings inside the steel tank,” says Henk. “We can track the history of millions of individual cells, and map how differently they evolve. We now even target not just the single ‘champion; cell, but rather the whole population - and try to turn that into a winning ‘microbial team’.”

Sounds complex - and it is. However, this technology will now be used by DSM to produce its next generation of fermentation-derived products. A micrometer truly goes a long way…

The DSM Biotechnology Center is not only one of the engines of innovation at DSM, it’s one of the leading commercial R&D organizations in the world, unique in its outstanding knowledge, technology and Intellectual Property.

With more than 400 scientists based at Delft in the Netherlands and Shanghai, China, the center is an increasingly valuable resource for those outside DSM searching for expertise in bio-based science – whether they be JV partners, Private-Public Partnerships, customers or members of DSM’s extensive external science network.

Our new, more efficient large-scale technology for fermentation is just one example. We expect this ‘inside out’ science approach to gather increasing momentum as science companies search not just for biotech knowledge and insight, but for a partner with the ability to implement them at industrial scale, with speed and flexibility.

In a big company you don’t always have time and resources to investigate every single aspect of an organism.

But at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands this is exactly what happened in order to help DSM gain a more comprehensive understanding of new potential microorganisms for microbial fermentation. In fact five PhD students spent four years attempting to ‘look inside the black box’ of the cells used for microbial fermentation.

Although it’s very, very small, a cell is actually a complete system,” explains Professor Sef Heijnen, who has been involved in microbial fermentation for more than 40 years – of which 15 years was for DSM and much of it has been with DSM. “We as chemical engineers have been peeling away the layers, and looking in great detail at how these cell systems work.”

Specifically, the institute developed a science ‘toolbox’ including unique experimental technologies and mathematical modeling to understand precisely what goes on inside these microbes – which in turn helps produce better microorganisms for the production of, for example, antibiotics, enzymes and biofuels.

Says Professor Heijnen. “Today we’re able to point to changes that improve organisms. Tomorrow, with the scientific knowledge now being acquired, we’ll be able to fully design our organisms.” Good news for DSM and its customers.

So how are microbial products made through fermentation from DSM benefiting the world?

In food, the product enzymes we produce from this process are used to create ingredients that reduce sugar and salt, for example, in everything from bread to dairy products; as well as extracting more goodness from natural oils - boosting health and wellness for millions of people, in a natural way based on more sustainable and environmentally friendly manufacturing processes.

Meanwhile, our expertise in metabolites is creating biochemicals and biofuels made from non-edible natural sources like agricultural waste – notably through our joint venture with POET in the United States. Our new production plant can produce 20 million gallons (~78 million liters) of cellulosic bio-ethanol each year – made from corn crop residue (cobs, leaves, husks and some stalks) and provide a viable alternative to fossil fuels like oil and petroleum.

For a process based on such a small organism, the potential for this new generation of microbial fermentation processes remains truly enormous.