R&D Talk: Understanding Precision Fermentation of Dairy Proteins

By Wouter Robert Berendsen, Dr.-Ing.

Research & Development Team Leader at Interfood

As the global population is predicted to grow to 8.5 billion by 2030 and eventually to 9.7 billion by 2050, the demand for dairy proteins is expected to skyrocket. Consequently, traditional dairy production may struggle to meet these increasing demands. These insights stimulated us - Interfood - to invest in an innovative deep tech company called Fermify, dedicated to precision fermentation of dairy proteins.

So, what exactly is precision fermentation?

Known alternatively as the 'Brewing of Proteins', precision fermentation is a technique commonly employed in the biopharmaceutical industry and in the production of microbial rennet. Essentially, this technology is a subset of biotechnology, a field in which I've personally researched during my PhD studies between 2001-2005.

The novelty lies in the growing focus on milk proteins. As of 2020, over $1 billion was invested globally in precision fermentation. This spike is largely due to the incredible reduction in DNA sequencing cost and time - from a whopping $1 billion and 13 years for the human genome in 2000 to just $1,000 and a few days now. For microbial DNA, it’s even cheaper and faster!

The procedure to produce casein or whey proteins (that constitute 80% and 20% of milk protein respectively) through precision fermentation for use in products like cheese involves a five-step process: genetic engineering, cell growth, protein production by the cells, purification (or downstream processing), and finally cheese production.

The process (see infographic below) starts with selecting a production host (typically yeast or E.coli cells) and modifying its DNA to produce the target protein. Once a suitable host is found, cells are grown in a bioreactor using a source of carbon and nitrogen, like sugars and ammonia, respectively. Upon reaching sufficient quantity of cells, an inducer is introduced to command the cells to start producing the target proteins. These proteins are then harvested and purified through a process called downstream processing, which involves techniques like centrifugation, homogenization, and filtration.

However, precision fermentation still presents many challenges, including protein yield variation based on the chosen feedstock, identification of the optimal production host, issues during scale-up, and protein breakdown during downstream processing. Additionally, the application of milk proteins produced this way in products like cheese, ice-cream, and sports nutrition is largely uncharted territory. Despite these hurdles, the potential of this new technology is massive.

PF process

Let's consider cheese production, for instance. In traditional dairy, cheese making begins with casein micelles found in milk. These micelles contain four types of caseins. In precision fermentation, these caseins are produced independently, giving cheese manufacturers an unprecedented opportunity to experiment with new combinations, potentially leading to unique, excellent tasting plant-based cheeses.

Coming back to my primary interest , and hence topic for my PhD studies, and the fact that we are using those technologies to pioneer cheese production through precision fermentation, it’s a fascinating time in the world of dairy production.

Now, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Would you embrace a cheese produced with a dairy protein that's brewed, much like beer?

Connect with me or Interfood on LinkedIn for more news and the latest insights.

Wouter Robert Berendsen, Dr.-Ing.

Research & Development Team Leader at Interfood Group