Several teams worldwide are researching a method of feeding yeasts with carbon dioxide from the air. A PhD student in Vienna succeeded for the first time. Now the new technology is supposed to be used for the sustainable production of protein-rich animal feed.

Between 1961 and 2009, meat consumption rose from twenty-three kilograms to forty-two kilograms per person and per year (source: Fleischatlas 2013). In order to meet the high demand, efficient animal breeding with protein-rich feed is necessary. Grass alone is not enough. Up to now, animal feed has mainly been obtained from soya. The use of soy for animal feed is questionable in several respects. Serious reasons are climate change and global food security. In the European Union, seventy percent of the protein-rich animal feed required has to be imported. In Austria alone the figure is 600,000 tons per year. Soya is cultivated on agricultural land in North and South America. The land would be better used for the cultivation of human food. In addition, the cultivation of soya products is labour-intensive, releases large quantities of pesticides into the environment and causes climate-damaging greenhouse gases.

ALTERNATIVE PROTEIN SOURCE

Researchers at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences (BOKU) Vienna and the Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology (ACIB) in Vienna succeeded in developing an alternative protein source for animal feed. It is pesticide-free and requires no agricultural land – one bioreactor is sufficient. A yeast strain is central to the process. Yeasts are unicellular fungi that feed on carbohydrates. Yeasts are not new in biotechnology and have previously already been used to produce animal feed. However, the carbohydrates required for this come from plants – and those require valuable cultivable land.

PICHIA PASTORIS

The PhD student Thomas Gaßler, together with his supervisor Diethard Mattanovich (both BOKU) and Matthias Steiger from ACIB, succeeded in feeding the yeast fungus Pichia Pastoris with carbon dioxide. In combination with a flexible energy source such as methanol or formate, this is to be used as a food source. Pichia Pastoris also lives on methanol under natural conditions. But to be able to use carbon dioxide from the air, a difficult metabolic pathway needs to be completed: The yeast must chemically reduce C atoms and combine them with each other. The technology of the strain has been patented worldwide.

Carbofeed’s goal: to provide an alternative source of protein as animal feed and at the same time make use of CO2 as a sustainable source of raw materials.

COMMERCIALIZATION

Now the researchers received a Spin-Off Fellowship financing from the Research Promotion Fund (FFG) to bring the Carbofeed project to market maturity. Together with the scientific assistant Michael Egermeier, they also received personnel support. The industrial application for the cost-effective production of yeast biomass from bio methanol and CO2 is possible since the carbofeed process uses a well-known biomass production process. This means that existing industrial plants can be used for production. Compared to conventional yeast biomass production processes, higher yields and therefore lower production costs can be expected.

Within the Spin-Off Fellowship, the core technology is to be further developed as a platform for the CO2-neutral production of microbial industrial goods. In order to strengthen the quality of the process, continuous further development of the process is planned.

MARKET

The technology is intended to be made accessible to locally producing companies via licenses. The first step is to address manufacturers of feed additives, whose market volume in 2015 was five billion euros in Europe and eighteen billion euros worldwide. In a second step, the company plans to enter the entire European animal feed market, which in 2015 had a volume of fifty-five billion euros.

The technology works without photosynthesis and can also be used for food supply in space travel.

The FFG Spin-Off Fellowship financing enables researchers to prepare the best possible implementation of their founding ideas. For the duration of eighteen months, the researchers can concentrate fully on the further development of their technology while also receiving a wide range of further training, coaching and mentoring.