Energy efficient and resilient food production system: using hydrogen-oxidizing bacteria to convert CO2 to protein (HERO-Protein)

To meet the carbon neutrality goals necessary to mitigate the impact of climate change, most sectors of human societies must undergo disruptive restructuring in the coming years.

Food production is responsible for approximately 25-35% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is recognized as one of the central domains that must urgently adopt the concept of Green Transition.

Agriculture requires new innovations that are independent of fossil-based energy, weather conditions, or land use, and the related supply chains need to strive towards circularity and carbon-negativity. The need for energy-efficient and resilient solutions for the production of food is undisputable, and so-called cellular agriculture, where microbial cells are used as production hosts, offers a means to obtain sustainable food proteins. Some microbes, such as Knallgas bacteria, can convert carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen (H2) into protein, offering a possibility for a transformative food system.

The HERO-Protein project aims to convert the hydrogen-oxidizing Knallgas bacterium species Rhodococcus opacus into a cellular factory that produces different food proteins for human consumption.

The microorganism will be used in two distinct but complementary ways:

  1. it will be modified to secrete food proteins into the extracellular space for easy downstream applications, and
  2. its biomass will be used for edible single-cell protein.

Importantly, this approach will lead to a resilient, energy-efficient, and carbon-negative food production system, in which H2 is generated through water electrolysis powered by renewable energy and CO2 is captured from air or industrial side streams. This way of growing bacteria is known as gas fermentation, and it enables food production that is independent of land use, location, or weather conditions, which saves water, protects the soil, and reduces the use of harmful chemicals.

The international research consortium of HERO-Protein includes experts in bacterial engineering, protein production, gas fermentation, food sciences, and techno-economic and life-cycle assessments. Our goal is to study the technological, nutritional, and sensory properties of the new protein ingredients, and to accurately estimate their environmental impact, economic feasibility, and optimize for the most sustainable products. This multidisciplinary approach will provide HERO-Protein with a unique opportunity to change the way that food is produced and consumed.