mastodon protein

Can extinct animals help fight climate change?

Words: Juergen Furian
Photo: Pixabay/AzDude

An intriguing discussion with the CEO behind a potentially world-changing new way of sustainable protein production
Juergen Furian
Juergen Furian

Co-Founder of Pioneers.io. Explorer of future tech that pushes the envelope
Monthly columnist for The Red Bulletin. Find him on linkedin, twitter and Instagram (juergen_furian).

It’s completely reasonable to choose to enjoy food that never flew in the sky, hasn’t grazed in a paddock and didn’t swim in the sea. Veganism is getting more hip by the day, after all! But what if the animal in question has been extinct for several millennia?

The lobby against factory farming has a strong case right now. But the factory farming of the future might barely muster a protest. That’s because it’s likely to make do without any living, breathing animals at all.

These ‘factory farms’ will be a far, far cry from the clucking, bellowing dens of nastiness that stir such emotions today. Instead, think sterile laboratories and gigantic fermentation tanks.

You might think I’ve been letting the vegan muffins go to my head, but this really is where we’re headed. Just ask Alex Lorestani, co-founder and CEO of Geltor

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He’s already shown the world his mastodon gelatin, which his startup derived directly from the mastodon protein sequence. Or, in layman’s terms, that means it was inspired the mammoth family. 

#prototype Building food with biology opens new

prototype Building food with biology opens new possibilities. We're making custom materials, like designer gelatin. Here is a peek at a gummy candy that we made with mastodon gelatin*. *No mastodons were harmed in the production of this prototype. Instead of extracting gelatin from animal scraps like skin and bone, we build microbes that build gelatin.

Call the ‘no mastodons were harmed’ post a PR stunt if you like, but Alex is serious about the point it proves.

“Our process is completely insensitive to whether or not the animal is alive and roaming the earth, because there are zero animal inputs in our process,” says Alex, who co-founded Geltor with his Princeton classmate Nick Ouzounov. “The mastodon gelatin shows that all we need is a sequence, and that’s it.”

“Thanks to DNA synthesis, we don’t ever have to actually interact with an animal or animal tissue to build what we build.”

“Many of the foods we love, the medicines we need, and the cosmetics we use daily rely on a single ingredient – gelatin. For thousands of years, humans have scavenged animal scraps to obtain gelatin. Scavenging essential products from animals presents urgent economic problems, environmental problems, public health problems, and for many, moral problems”
Alex Lorestani, co-founder and CEO of Geltor

Alex and Nick built their idea on the “quiet outrage” they felt that something of that nature didn’t previously exist. He and Nick – whom he describes as “a guy who’s basically had a lab in his basement since he was eight” – are already finding success with their idea. In summer 2015 they kick-started the company through biotech accelerator IndieBio, and in little over a year and a half, they’re already gaining some serious traction. Geltor’s core products – currently based on collagen, from which gelatin is derived – have got customers lining up.

What really excites Alex is where the company’s technologies might take the food production of tomorrow.

“The goal is to become the number one protein production company in the world, and we want to replace animals as a platform for protein production”
Alex Lorestani

“We can directly build the proteins and materials people are actually interested in using, instead of settling for, you know, whatever you can scrape out of a pig or a cow,” he says.

Artificial protein is nothing new, really. What’s fresh is the customisability and scalability potential Geltor is uncovering. “Making a little bit of a very expensive protein isn’t that hard. What’s hard is making tonnes of this stuff at a competitive price point.”

Gärtanks

There are “millions of litres of fermentation capacity,” according to Alex Lorestani

© WikiCommons/Steven Vaughn

Alex points to the “millions of litres of fermentation capacity” that’s a legacy of the biofuels industry as one critical development in making that possible. The other is that the technology to make it cost-effective has come on in leaps and bounds. “Even when I was an undergraduate, printing DNA sequences was prohibitively expensive, a lot less reliable and took much longer,” he says.

So while no carnivore is going to lose their taste for a good steak in a hurry, they may soon be getting tempted by vegan treats none of us have even thought of yet.

“Because we’ve relied on ten billion chickens and about a billion livestock up to now, we’ve really only scratched the surface in terms of understanding how we can leverage the materials made in nature on a picogram scale,” he says. “But when you’re actually manufacturing this stuff in grams, kilos, and tonnes, there are really interesting and exciting possible applications for the solutions nature has already come up with.”

“Evolution is the best product development program out there. Instead of seeing animals as protein production platforms, we see them as information platforms”
Alex Lorestani

In our frenzy to feed more people more meat at a low price point, we’ve created an out of control ‘food production’ system. With cattle the number one cause of climate change and 80 percent of all antibiotics in the US fed to farm animals, we have to find a better way of feeding the world. The solution needs to include a step-by-step reduction of our dependence on livestock.

Massenviehzucht

There are much more effective possibilities than factory farming

© WikiCommons/Xcx

Keen for improved ethics credentials and a more effective supply chain without compromised quality, it’s little wonder businesses are lining up for Geltor’s work, which is set to hit the market later this year. Let’s hope the gradual push to reduce the need for animals in our food production continues. This can only be good news for our health, our future climate and the animals with which we share the planet! 

You can meet Alex Lorestani at Pioneers Festival in Vienna, Austria, on June 1-2.

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03 2017 THE RED BULLETIN

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