Microbes: Part 1, #20
Introduction to the world of microbes
Good to see you again!
I know many of you might have been following the COP26 over the past weeks in Glasgow.
While some progress was made, COP26 still fell short of delivering the radical climate actions our humankind needs. (This is sadly unsurprising…)
The governments’ current policies still lack annual emission reductions of over 20 Gt /CO2e to limit the global warming under 1.5°C by 2030?! This includes the Glasgow pledges.
We are on a track to 2.4°C warming - with disastrous consequences.
Chris Sacca’s tweet pretty much summarizes my thoughts right now. LET’S GO!
The following deep dive focuses on amazing minuscule biological creatures called microbes. I’ve divided the deep dive into two parts to make it easier for you to digest all the information.
Part 1: Introduction to the world of microbes
Part 2: How microbes can tackle climate change
We will start today with an introduction to microbes and their current large-scale industrial applications. Then, next week, we’ll continue exploring how microbes can help us tackle climate change.
✨The spark of interest
Last September, I read the news that Formo, a Berlin-based food tech startup, had raised $50M, the largest Series A round in European food tech. (Btw the Co-Founder of Formo, Raffael, is also part of the fantastic Sigma Squared entrepreneur community!)
I soon learnt that Formo is doing something quite amazing: making cheese without cows!
More specifically, Formo is genetically engineering microbes to produce casein and whey, the two integral proteins of cheese. As a result, we no longer need a whole cow for producing dairy products.
As Lauri Reuter, Partner at Nordic FoodTech VC, stated in his interview with Survivaltech.club a few weeks back, we are now experiencing “the second wave of domestication”. We are domesticating microbes to be our food production machinery.
Before, we needed a tool that was a size of a cow to make our food. Now we can use microbes to do the same thing. (More about this next week!)
🦠The basics - what are microbes?
Let’s start from the top. What are these microbes?
Microbes (a.k.a microorganisms) are tiny organisms. They are so tiny that we humans need a microscope to see the most types of microbes.
There are many kinds of microbes. There’s bacteria, fungi, and algae. Some also consider viruses as microbes.
In more scientific terms, microbes are microscopic organisms that are unicellular (single-cell) or form a colony of cells.
Microbes exist all around us. For example, our skin and gut are covered with beneficial microbes.
Microbes are critical for us. 50-85% of the oxygen that we breathe is produced by phytoplankton in the oceans. We literally couldn’t live without microbes.
To experience the beauty and variety of microorganisms, I can highly recommend the Journey to the Microcosmos- Youtube channel. It features some extraordinary microorganisms under a microscope. (Relaxing music, too.)
Just look at how fascinating these creatures are!
While microorganisms have a beautiful diversity, most scientific experiments are done with only a handful of microbes. The two most common types of microbes used in industry are 1) E.coli bacteria (Escherichia coli) and 2) Yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae).
Large-scale utilization of microbes - it’s here!
Our humankind already utilizes microbes in many large-scale industrial applications. Microbes are an integral part of all of the following industries:
⛽Biofuel and chemicals production
While not all industries are linked to mitigating climate change, I wanted to feature them in this part 1 of the deep dive to illustrate how widely we already use microbes in our society.
Microbes help us produce many of our beloved foods and beverages. What would a world without bread, beer, and cheese be like?
As weird as it may sound, fungi (yeast, mold) and bacteria help to make some of our tastiest foods.
Watch the great introductory video below:
If you are an incurable cheese-lover, check out this report by the American Society for Microbiology.
⛽Biofuel and chemicals production
Microbes make one of the most widely used fuels and chemicals, ethanol.
Ethanol is used as a fuel and fuel additive. It is also extensively used as a solvent and an intermediate in the production of chemicals. In 2020, the world’s ethanol production was 26 billion gallons.
Most ethanol today is produced by yeast cells via a process called fermentation.
In the fermentation process, yeast consumes sugar (glucose) in the absence of oxygen. As a result, yeast produces ethanol and carbon dioxide.
The glucose is derived from sugary biomass like corn and sugar beet.
Ethanol is considered a renewable fuel. However, it is essential to pay attention to how the massive quantities of biomass feedstock are produced. If the biomass production includes chopping down primary forest and planting biomass plants, then it goes without saying that this is unsustainable.
Microbes help keep our environment clean. They play a crucial part in our wastewater treatment systems.
Purifying the wastewater is a feast for the microbes. What we flush down the toilets is pretty disgusting. But for microbes, it’s yummy. Microbes eat and thereby decompose the organic matter of the sewage.
I found this great article on microbes and wastewater treatment by the American Society for Microbiology. This is so cool!
Microbes save our lives. They help produce many antibiotics that fight off deadly bacteria.
The first-ever antibiotic was penicillin. Alexander Fleming discovered it in 1928. Penicillin is naturally produced by Penicillium molds (fungi) via the fermentation process. The production of penicillin is made in large fermentation tanks.
In addition to Penicillium molds, there’s a variety of fungi and bacteria that produce different kinds of valuable antibiotics. For example, tetracycline, which I took a while ago for treating acne, is produced by Streptomyces type bacteria.
🔉Podcasts for further learning
This Week in Microbiology by the American Society for Microbiology
Bio Eats World by a16z
I hope to have illustrated to you the marvelous world of microbes in this first part of the deep dive on microbes. Next week, we will take a look at how microbes can help solve climate change.
Until next week! As always, super happy to hear feedback and ideas and connect with people like you on a mission to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss!
American Chemical Society International Historic Chemical Landmarks. Discovery and Development of Penicillin. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/flemingpenicillin.html
American Society for Microbiology (2014). FAQ: Microbes Make the Cheese. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562892/
Byrd, A., Belkaid, Y. & Segre, J. (2018) The human skin microbiome. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 16, 143–155. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrmicro.2017.157
Climate Action Tracker (2021). Glasgow’s 2030 credibility gap: net zero’s lip service to climate action. https://climateactiontracker.org/publications/glasgows-2030-credibility-gap-net-zeros-lip-service-to-climate-action/
Cooper, G. M. (2000). The Cell: A Molecular Approach. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9839/
Lovett, B. (2020). How Microbes Help Us Reclaim Our Wastewater. American Society for Microbiology. https://asm.org/Articles/2020/April/How-Microbes-Help-Us-Reclaim-Our-Wastewater
Runge, C. F. (2016). The Case Against More Ethanol: It’s Simply Bad for Environment. The Yale Environment 360. https://e360.yale.edu/features/the_case_against_ethanol_bad_for_environment
Tsang, J. (2020) Changing CO2 Levels Require Microbial Coping Strategies. American Society for Microbiology. https://asm.org/Articles/2019/April/Changing-CO2-Levels-Means-Different-Coping-Strateg
U.S. Energy Information Administration (2021). Biofuels explained: Ethanol. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biofuels/ethanol.php
Wolf, M. (2021). Formo Raises $50 Million to Make Animal-Free Cheese With Precision Fermentation. The Spoon. https://thespoon.tech/formo-raises-50-million-to-make-animal-free-cheese-with-precision-fermentation/