An old NASA space technology from the 60s has been rediscovered and could revolutionise the way we grow food. The science is in a powerful class of microbes called ‘hydrogenotrophs’, which use carbon dioxide as a nutrient to be converted into food.
NASA’s idea was for the microorganisms to convert the carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts into food. The process involves the biological and chemical synthesis of waste gases to cell material which could be used as a more complete food. The astronauts would then eat and recycle that back into carbon dioxide, as humans do. This forms a closed-loop carbon cycle.
Today, the work of hydrogenotrophs in recycling carbon dioxide into food is done inside vertical bioreactor systems. This factory-like setting means more food can be produced per land area so our remaining forests do not have to be cleared to feed future populations.
Hydrogenotrophs are able to recycle carbon dioxide into food far more rapidly than plants do. By rapid we are talking about producing food in a bioreactor in a matter of hours rather than months. Lisa Dyson of Kiverdi, a biotech company, claims this means we could make 10,000 times more food per land area, when compared to planting soybeans.
And that’s not all. These microbes are versatile in producing a variety of everyday products such as protein-rich meals and a substitute for palm oil—which can then be used to create everything from ice-cream to toothpaste.
Space offers an analogy and testing ground for sustaining life within finite resources. As harsh as the conditions are in space, life on earth is getting tougher. With climate change, a population heading for 10 billion and increasing pressures on landand water, innovations from space and the microbial world offer game-changing opportunities for a sustainable future.
There is rising interest in how an understanding of the microbiome can help us cultivate healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems—whether in our own bodies or the environments we live in. Using microorganisms to produce food is one strain of microbial research. As a potential source of protein, microorganisms could also help us reduce our dependence on animal agriculture, which is the number one carbon emitting industry.
How might these microbes change our relationship to food? Contrary to crops nourished by the soil and sun, food produced by microorganisms can be grown in the dark, anytime, anywhere. Does this veer from the ‘real food’ movement, where people strive to eat fresh unprocessed meals?
If the nutritional makeup of the microbial produce is the same as what’s grown traditionally, will our bodies experience any difference? Could this be the food of the future for people sandwiched in densely populated cities? Will food packaging of the future credit microorganisms as the new farmers?
And while the tech was developed for outer space, hydrogenotrophs aren’t far from home. They can be found in our gut, living in a symbiotic relationship with fermentative bacteria to keep our gut healthy. Could we one day teach our gut microbes to produce food for us in a closed loop system of our own?
Lisa Dyson's TED Talk “A forgotten Space Age technology could change how we grow food”: