Artificial egg white protein

Cell cultures offer sustainable alternative to egg protein

Image credit: VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland

Researchers from the University of Helsinki have demonstrated that ovalbulmin produced by fungus could have the potential to mitigate part of the environmental burden associated with chicken egg white powder, particularly if low-carbon energy sources are used.

Powder from the whites of chicken eggs is a commonly used ingredient in the food industry, due to the high-quality protein it contains. The annual consumption of egg white protein in 2020 was around 1.45 million tonnes, and the market is expected to expand further in the coming years.

This growing demand raises questions about both sustainability and ethics. Parts of the egg white production chain, such as rearing chickens for egg laying, generate large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to water scarcity, biodiversity loss, and deforestation. Additionally, intensive chicken farming has resulted in outbreaks of zoonotic disease by serving as an important reservoir for human pathogens. This is not to mention the many animal welfare issues associated with poultry farming.

Searching for sustainable alternatives to animal-based protein has been of growing interest within both the food industry and among environmentally savvy consumers. Cellular agriculture – also known as precision fermentation when used for recombinant ingredient production – offers a biotechnology-based solution to recouple the production of animal proteins from animal farming, using a microbial production system to produce the specific proteins instead.

Researchers from the University of Helsinki’s future sustainable food systems group worked with VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland to develop an alternative source of ovalbumin. The Nature Food study can be read here.

“For example, more than half of the egg white powder protein content is ovalbumin,” explained Dr Emilia Nordlund of VTT Technical Research Centre. “VTT has succeeded in producing ovalbumin with the help of the filamentous ascomycete fungus Trichoderma reesei.

“The gene carrying the blueprints for ovalbumin is inserted by modern biotechnological tools into the fungus which then produces and secretes the same protein that chickens produce. The ovalbumin protein is then separated from the cells, concentrated and dried to create a final functional product.”

Cell-cultured products generally need more electricity than typical agricultural products, and therefore the type of energy source used affects its environmental credentials. However, the agricultural input needed for ovalbumin production by microbes – such as glucose – is generally substantially lower per kg of protein powder.

PhD candidate Natasha Järviö of the University of Helsinki said: “According to our research, this means that the fungus-produced ovalbumin reduced land use requirements by almost 90 per cent and greenhouse gases by 31-55 per cent compared to the production of its chicken-based counterpart. In the future, when production is based on low-carbon energy, precision fermentation has the potential to reduce the impact even by up to 72 per cent.”

Regarding water use, the environmental credentials of the two approaches are less conclusive. Results show a high degree of dependency on the assumed location of the ovalbumin production site. In general, the study shows the potential of the precision fermentation technology to increase the sustainability of protein production, which can be increased further by the use of renewable energy resources.

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