In his 2001 book, “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World”, author Michael Pollan challenges the conventional anthropocentric view of the world and encourages his readers to look at life from a plant’s perspective. Are humans or plants really calling the shots? Perhaps we’re not controlling plants for our survival as much as they’re controlling us for theirs. Pollan highlights how several plants appeal to basic human desires, and throughout history we have been selectively breeding different crops for certain traits and spreading them around the world seemingly for our benefit. These crops include apples (for sweetness), tulips (for beauty), marijuana (for intoxication) and many more.
Similarly, microbes have been co-evolving with humans, forming a symbiotic relationship over millions of years. In fact, each human is colonized by trillions of microbes. The food we eat feeds beneficial microbes that live in our guts, and in return they outcompete pathogenic microbes and produce metabolites that modulate our immune systems. Additionally, microbes have been aiding humans in one of the oldest methods of food processing – fermentation – whereby microbes transform food from one form into another, for thousands of years. In the late 20th century, we began engineering microbes to produce drugs, such as insulin, and other ingredients via industrial fermentation – a process akin to brewing beer. Since then, we have been harnessing this technology for numerous applications across the agriculture, energy, food, and healthcare industries.
Today, we’re accelerating our joint venture with these nifty little creatures. We’re engineering and evolving them, feeding and growing them, and protecting and spreading them all over the world. The question is, are we doing all this work for our benefit or for theirs? Perhaps it’s not the humans or plants, but rather the microbes calling the shots.
Source: Global Engage.
Engineering and evolving microbes
As the cost of technologies such as genome sequencing and cloud computing have been exponentially decreasing over the last several years, scientists have been increasing their research on microbes, leading to several discoveries around the functions of microbes and their interaction with other organisms. Industry is harnessing this research for a variety of commercial applications, such as using microbes as mini factories to produce animal-free proteins, healthy crops, and medicines. As part of this movement, three startups, enEvolv (Cultivian portfolio company), Ginkgo Bioworks, and Zymergen, have collectively raised over $1.5 billion in venture capital to engineer and evolve microbes for several of these applications. Leveraging tools such as next-generation DNA sequencing and machine learning, these innovators are vastly increasing the volume and diversity of useful microbes and, compared to prior technologies, significantly reducing the time and cost required to commercialize bio-based products for our benefit.
Feeding and growing microbes
In his 2011 article, “Software is Eating the World”, technology venture capitalist Marc Andreessen demonstrates how software companies have been taking over some of the world’s largest industries. Today, it seems like microbes are eating the world (sometimes literally) as microbial fermentation is becoming the go-to manufacturing process for proteins, medicines and other products.
To design microbes for these processes, we utilize in silico modeling and computer code (0’s and 1’s) to modify the genetic code (A’s, C’s, T’s, and G’s) of microbes to engineer certain strains that nourish us and, to some extent, other strains to produce the sugars that nourish them. According to some estimates, the probiotics (live microbes that nourish us) and prebiotics (sugars that nourish them) markets are forecasted to reach $77 billion and $7 billion, respectively, by 2024. In anticipation of rising demand, venture capital investment in the microbiome space has exploded in recent years.
Several startups are leveraging microbes and their derivative products for commercial applications. These use cases help demonstrate the symbiosis that exists between humans and microbes. We engineer and evolve microbes, and then we feed and grow them; in return they generate products that benefit us. Our relationship with microbes has also unlocked new value propositions and reduced our reliance on the natural world, such as the need to harvest animals for food, drugs and other products. Geltor (Cultivian portfolio company) for example, is an emerging leader in the field of producing animal-free proteins via fermentation. The company’s initial focus is collagen protein, which historically could only be extracted from animal skin, bone, and connective tissue. Geltor recently announced a major partnership with GELITA to launch the world’s first animal-free collagen protein in 2020.
Protecting and spreading microbes
Like the variety of plants Pollan highlights in his 2001 book, humans have been protecting and spreading microbes all over the world ostensibly to suit our needs. Recently, consumer preferences for the reduction or elimination of antibiotics and pesticides in the food supply chain are beginning to transform agriculture. As a result, increasing demand for and adoption of bio-based products are protecting the beneficial microbes in our crops, in our livestock and, consequently, in our guts. In fact, companies like Eligo Bioscience, Folium Science and General Probiotics are engineering microbes that selectively destroy pathogenic microbes while keeping beneficial microbes intact as an alternative to broad spectrum antibiotics that wipe out both beneficial and pathogenic microbes – kind of like a “we’ll keep you alive if you do the same for us” quid pro quo.
Additionally, we have been spreading beneficial microbes around the world. As certain microbes demonstrate their usefulness to humans in developed countries, Gates Foundation is investing in and partnering with venture-backed startups, such as AgBiome (for crop health) and Evolve BioSystems (for infant nutrition), to deploy these same microbial products in developing countries.
Food for thought
These are just a few examples of our ability to leverage microbes apparently for our advantage. Today we are domesticating microbes just like we have domesticated plants in the past. Like apples, tulips and marijuana, humans are harnessing the genetic potential of microbes and art of fermentation to produce chocolate (for sweetness), collagen (for beauty), and wine (for intoxication). Although they are far from a panacea, investing in microbial-related technologies holds tremendous promise for humans, plants and the rest of the natural world.
As I wrap up this article, I begin to wonder if my purpose was to promote investments in this space or if I was subconsciously hired by these nifty little creatures for their PR campaign? Now that I think about it, I think they’re the ones calling the shots!13