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Mold burgers: Fungi aims to become the smart food of the future

As the food industry looks toward more sustainable and innovative solutions to meet global demands, biotechnology emerges as a game-changer, particularly through the exploration of fungi as a source of alternative proteins. 

These organisms, belonging to a diverse kingdom, are capable of producing a rich array of proteins, fats, antioxidants, and flavor molecules, making them an untapped goldmine for the food sector. 

Harnessing the genetic potential of fungi

Vayu Hill-Maini, who has transitioned from chef to bioengineer and now works with the Biosciences Area at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), is at the forefront of this exploration, harnessing the genetic potential of fungi to revolutionize how we think about food.

Hill-Maini, also a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley in the laboratory of renowned bioengineering expert Jay Keasling, is leveraging advances in genetic engineering to unlock new possibilities in food production. 

“I think it’s a fundamental aspect of synthetic biology that we’re benefiting from organisms that have evolved to be really good at certain things,” Hill-Maini explained. 

“What we’re trying to do is to look at what the fungus is making and try to kind of unlock and enhance it. And I think that’s an important angle that we don’t need to introduce genes from wildly different species. We’re investigating how we can stitch things together and unlock what’s already there.”

Capabilities of koji mold

In a study published on March 14, Hill-Maini, alongside colleagues from UC Berkeley, the Joint BioEnergy Institute, and the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability, delved into the capabilities of Aspergillus oryzae, also known as koji mold.

This fungus, with a long history of use in East Asian fermentation processes, became the subject of their experimentation with CRISPR-Cas9, a state-of-the-art gene editing system. 

The researchers aimed to modify the koji mold in petri dishes to increase its utility as a food source, specifically targeting the production of heme, an iron-based molecule that gives meat its distinctive flavor, and ergothioneine, an antioxidant found exclusively in fungi that benefits cardiovascular health.

Fungi as a healthier food option

The outcome of these genetic modifications was visually striking, transforming the fungi from white to red, and enabling the creation of a burger patty from the harvested fungi with minimal preparation.

This innovative approach to food production not only offers a sustainable alternative to traditional meat sources but also caters to the growing demand for healthier dietary options.

Beyond taste, Hill-Maini’s next goal is to enhance the fungi’s texture to more closely mimic that of meat, improving its appeal to consumers. 

“We think that there’s a lot of room to explore texture by varying the fiber-like morphology of the cells. So, we might be able to program the structure of the lot fibers to be longer which would give a more meat-like experience. And then we can think about boosting lipid composition for mouth feel and further nutrition,” said Hill-Maini, highlighting the breadth of possibilities that fungi present as a food source.

Tapping into the full potential of fungal genomes

This work signifies just the beginning of tapping into the full potential of fungal genomes for creating new, sustainable foods. It showcases the vast possibilities for biomanufacturing, extending beyond single-celled organisms like bacteria and yeast, which have traditionally been used. 

The development of a CRISPR-Cas9 toolkit for editing koji mold paves the way for more complex multicellular fungi to be engineered more easily, broadening the scope of bio-manufactured goods.

“These organisms have been used for centuries to produce food, and they are incredibly efficient at converting carbon into a wide variety of complex molecules, including many that would be almost impossible to produce using a classic host like brewer’s yeast or E. coli,” Keasling explained. 

“By unlocking koji mold through the development of these tools, we are unlocking the potential of a huge new group of hosts that we can use to make foods, valuable chemicals, energy-dense biofuels, and medicines. It’s a thrilling new avenue for biomanufacturing.”

Sustainable fungi-based foods

Hill-Maini’s passion for both food and biotechnology drives him to ensure that future mold and fungi-based products are not only sustainable and nutritious but also delicious and desirable. 

His collaboration with chefs at Alchemist, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen, to explore the culinary potential of another multicellular fungus, Neurospora intermedia, illustrates the exciting possibilities of merging laboratory innovations with gastronomy.

This endeavor resulted in a unique dish that exemplifies the creative use of fungal chemistry in creating novel food experiences.

As biotechnology continues to evolve, the exploration of fungi as a source of sustainable, nutritious, and appealing food options offers a promising path toward addressing global food security challenges while minimizing environmental impact. 

Hill-Maini’s work exemplifies the potential of synthetic biology to transform the food industry, encouraging a reevaluation of conventional agricultural practices and dietary preferences in favor of more innovative and eco-friendly solutions.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.


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