Lisa Dyson Physicist, entrepreneur, and Kiverdi CEO, Lisa Dyson seeks to transform harmful carbon dioxide pollution into nutritious, sustainable meatless meat proteins. PHOTO COURTESY OF LISA DYSON
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Carbon-Negative Food Made From Thin Air? This Science Fiction Idea May Be A Reality Sooner Than You Think

Consumer awareness of climate change and animal welfare are driving a meatless meat revolution. Unlike pasture-raised meats, plant- and fermentation-based proteins are low-emission, and require very little water and land use. Transitioning away from mega-greenhouse gas-emitting foods like beef only tackles part of the crisis. Our planet is still choking on excess carbon dioxide.

With synthetic biology, it is possible to transform CO2 from a harmful gas into delicious, life-sustaining nutrition. I’ve previously written about the forgotten space tech that could feed the world, one of its practitioners is Lisa Dyson, Ph.D., CEO of Kiverdi, whose initiative Air Protein aims to transform carbon dioxide into meat-free meat. In recognition of her work, Dyson was recently awarded the SynBioBeta 2020 Bio-Innovator of the Year Award.

“The food industry is one of the largest greenhouse gas-emitting sectors, emitting more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector, including cars,” says Dyson. As a whole, Kiverdi is focused on leveraging atmospheric carbon in supply chains throughout multiple industries. Air Protein uses Kiverdi’s platform and enabling technologies to develop delicious, nutritious, sustainable foods.

From physics to food

Dyson’s path to the intersection of food and climate science has been an unusual one. Her Ph.D. is in theoretical high energy physics — she is only the fourth Black woman ever to receive this degree. While physics may sound like an unusual starting point for a synthetic biologist, Dyson says that her training taught her to solve all problems through the scientific method. And in this case, the root problem is too much carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere.

“The problem we were looking at was, how do you take something destructive and use it in a positive way?” she says. In other words, could Kiverdi find a way to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and transform it into a useful resource?

Dyson’s training as a physicist enables her to think further outside the box than perhaps a traditional biologist. She embraces the view that Earth is like a spaceship: an enclosed habitat with constrained resources. So, it made sense for Dyson to turn to the early days of spaceflight for answers. After all, NASA is the world expert in CO2 recycling for spaceships.

Farming from the air

There, Dyson found that the idea of turning atmospheric CO2 into a useful product through a closed-loop system has been around since the dawn of the space age. NASA discovered that hydrogenotrophs—single-celled microorganisms that metabolize hydrogen for energy—could convert astronauts’ exhaled carbon dioxide into a nutritious, carbon-rich crop. Dyson and her team reawakened this technology and upgraded it for the biotech age.

Just like plants, hydrogenotrophs need a carbon source. They absorb carbon dioxide from the air, use it for fuel, and release oxygen and water vapor back into the atmosphere. Plants also need water, solar energy, and nutrients from the soil like nitrogen. But with plants, the time from seed to harvest can take months. The process is relatively slow, and traditional farming demands huge amounts of horizontal land space—which is driving deforestation.

Air Protein’s process uses many of the inputs of traditional crops but on a lot less land and at a vastly accelerated rate. The company’s microbial “seeds” grow in a fermentation bath of nutrient-rich water by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The microbes convert these inputs into proteins. But rather than waiting months (for soy) or years (for cows), the proteins are ready for harvest in a matter of days. Essentially, Air Protein has the potential to improve traditional farming efficiency by 3,500 percent.

An economic niche in the supply chain

Climate change mitigation technologies are critical for saving our planet, but  great technology will never succeed if it isn’t economically feasible. Luckily, Dyson isn’t just a physicist. She grew up watching her father’s highs and lows as an entrepreneur and developed her entrepreneurial skills during her time with the Boston Consulting Group. This puts Dyson at an advantage in overcoming one of the toughest hurdles for startups: the ability to scale.

One of the key scaling benefits of microbial-based proteins is they can be produced virtually anywhere on the planet, even in places whose local climate typically couldn’t support a given crop. Importantly, producing these proteins doesn’t require vast land for pastures or feedstock cultivation. Instead of building outwards in fields, Air Protein facilities can build up in the next iteration of vertical farms. As a result, technology like Air Protein can be easily introduced into supply chains worldwide. Record fires in Brazil, Australia, and now California make producing meatless protein independent of arable land and weather conditions more critical than ever.

Food tech that helps everyone

Dyson’s passion for sustainable nutrition is deeply rooted in her personal experience. After Hurricane Katrina, Dyson went to New Orleans, where her mother’s family lives, to help rebuild the city. Looking back on the storm’s devastation and the plight of refugees, Dyson connected her time in post-Katrina New Orleans with the increasingly severe disasters driven by climate change.

“As a scientist, I believe that science and technology could be a part of the solution. I wanted to really see if I can build a technology that could contribute,” says Dyson.

If our warming planet wasn’t enough, the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the need for sustainable, easy-to-produce nutrition to the front-and-center of national and global conversations.

Even before the pandemic, over 37 million people in the United States experienced food insecurity. This burden disproportionately falls on people of color. As of 2018, 21% of African American households experienced food insecurities versus 11% of the general population. The Covid-19 crisis has further stressed already fractured nutritional supply chains.

“We see what has happened with the supply chain collapse through Covid-19, specifically around meat. We are looking to democratize access to nutritional food. Food security is a huge issue that is becoming more apparent,” says Dyson.

The future of food is near

To date, Air Protein hasn’t announced when their products will show up in supermarkets. But Dyson says she has been overwhelmed by consumers asking when Air Protein products will become available. Consumers are increasingly aware of how our grocery trips affect our planet’s future. The need for sustainable, low-land-use nutrition is clear. How else can we feed 10 billion people by 2050 without leveling our rainforests in the process?

Going forward, Dyson is excited by the growing meatless-meat sector and by the trailblazers who have helped drive consumer acceptance of these products. Now Air Protein is helping the industry take its next steps.

“We’re really focused on providing consumers with ultra-sustainable, highly nutritious products,” says Dyson. Through innovation, persistence, and a touch of space-age science fiction, Dyson and her team aim to literally pull food out of thin air—and revolutionize food for our sustainable future.

Subscribe to my weekly synthetic biology newsletter. Thank you to Fiona Rose Mischel for additional research and reporting in this article.

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John Cumbers

John Cumbers

John Cumbers is the founder of SynBioBeta. John is passionate about education and on the use and adoption of biological technologies. He has received multiple awards and grants from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences for his work in the field. John has been involved in multiple startups such as those producing food for space, microbes to extract lunar and martian resources, and hoverboards! John is an active investor through the DCVC SynBioBeta Fund and his synthetic biology syndicate on AngelList.

Fiona Mischel

Fiona Mischel

Fiona Mischel is a medical, environmental, and humanitarian tech writer. She frequently covers CRISPR research, sustainable agriculture, and biotech for space travel. She is passionate to show how scientific innovations can combat our climate crisis and positively impact communities worldwide. Her work has appeared in Overture Global and she is a consultant for Healthline and Livestrong.

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