We can produce anything

Technical University of Denmark

“I have food companies asking me: What can you make? My answer is: What do you want me to make? We can make anything.”

These are the words of Associate Professor José L. Martinez, who conducts research and teaches precision fermentation at DTU, and he sums up the past decade’s fast-paced development of a technology that can help the world to a more sustainable production of just about anything.

Egg whites, cheese, yogurt, milk, vitamins, fragrances, colouring agents, flavour additives, vaccines, and cancer and malaria medicine are just some of the things that are manufactured today using components produced with precision fermentation.

Fermentation is a word that most people probably associate with the process of producing beer, bread, sauerkraut or its ‘hip’ counterpart of the East, kimchi. Fermentation utilizes microorganisms such as bacteria and yeasts that already exist in nature. And this is exactly where fermentation differs from precision fermentation. Because the microorganisms involved in precision fermentation are designed for the specific purpose, says José L. Martinez:

“In precision fermentation, microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, microalgae, or yeast cells are utilized to produce the substances we need. But in order to get the organisms to produce the substances, they must first undergo a couple years’ development work in a laboratory where they are specially designed using genetic engineering.”

CRISPR changed everything

One of the most important tools for this redesign is CRISPR. Simply put, CRISPR can be used to ‘cut’ out genes of a plant or another living organism and insert them into a new cell. The inserted gene contains the code for the substance to be manufactured. If the process is successful, the genetically modified cell can now produce the substance.

Precision fermentation has been known for decades, and Novo Nordisk has long utilized it to produce insulin. But the field has skyrocketed over the past decade due to the CRISPR technology, which became available in 2012.

“Before CRISPR, genetic modification of a microorganism was a difficult, slow, and boring process, and only possible with a few organisms. With CRISPR, it suddenly became easier, and we can now insert genes into a wider variety of microorganisms,” says José L. Martinez, who had to give up modifying a type of yeast cell himself before the birth of the CRISPR technology, despite four years of strenuous efforts. With CRISPR, Martinez and his colleague at DTU Bioengineering, Professor Uffe Hasbro Mortensen, succeeded in modifying the cell in two years.

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