Engineering Biology Hub for Microbial Food

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Bioengineering


We propose the creation of an Engineering Biology Hub for Microbial Foods. The aim of the Hub is to harness the joint potential of two important scientific fields - engineering biology and microbial foods - in order to transform our existing food production system into one that is better for the environment, more resilient to climatic or political shocks, and that gives consumers healthier and tastier products.

Background: Current food systems are unsustainable. Traditional farming and agriculture contribute significantly to climate change, and this is exacerbated by the alarming levels of food waste. Damage to the planet is mirrored by impacts on human health: a significant portion of the global population suffers malnutrition, while diseases linked to ultra-processed and high-calorie diets continue to rise. The way we produce and consume food has to change, and to change quickly if we are to have any chance of meeting targets for clean growth. Microbial foods - produced by microorganisms like yeast and fungi - offer a way to make this urgently needed transformation.

Microbial foods are produced using different types of fermentation, with this process employed to produce large quantities of protein and other nutrients (biomass fermentation), to modulate and process plant and animal-derived products (traditional fermentation) or to produce new food ingredients (precision fermentation). Microbes grow rapidly, don't need large amounts of land or water to grow, and can use food by-products ('food waste') as feedstocks. In addition, microbial foods are less affected by adverse weather and can be produced locally - reducing transport costs, carbon footprint, and our dependence on food imports.

Engineering biology applies engineering principles to biology, enabling scientists to build and manufacture novel biological systems and products. Tools from engineering biology have recently been applied to optimise microbial food production, and microbes can now be manipulated to be more productive, tastier and more nutritious. Applying engineering biology to microbial foods has the potential to radically change the way food is produced, and this creates an important and timely opportunity to address some of the most critical health and sustainability challenges of our time.

The Hub:
The first of its kind in the world, the new Hub will build on the UK's world-leading expertise and facilities in engineering biology and microbial foods. It will bring together academics, industrial partners, food organisations and consumers in a wide-ranging and ambitious programme of work that creates a clear route from scientific research to new food products on the shelf.

At the heart of the Hub's activity will be eleven research projects, each addressing a separate challenge that needs to be overcome if large-scale production of diverse microbial food products is to be achieved. Project will use cutting-edge engineering biology methods, and will benefit from the Hub's additional focus on education, regulation and commercialisation, to ensure research outputs are translated into meaningful benefits.

Overall, our objectives are :
- To advance research into how engineering biology can be used to produce microbial foods
- To develop new capabilities for developing microbial foods using engineering biology
- To open new routes for this research to benefit human health and environmental sustainability

Meeting these objectives will establish the Hub as an internationally-recognised reference for research, innovation and translation in the application of engineering biology to microbial foods - demonstrating UK leadership in this field, attracting the best global talent, and delivering more sustainable, productive, resilient and healthy food systems.

Technical Summary

We propose an Engineering Biology Hub for Microbial Foods, integrating world-leading research and innovation, education, translation and commercialisation. The overarching vision is to harness the joint potentials of engineering biology and the microbial food revolution to create and deliver a more sustainable, productive, resilient and healthy food system.

The Hub's research programme encompasses projects focused on 'Applications' (biomass fermentation, traditional fermentation, precision fermentation), and 'Capabilities' (scale-up, artificial intelligence, strain engineering, food technology and nutrition) at the interface of engineering biology and microbial foods. Projects will be underpinned by a range of cutting-edge tools and approaches from engineering biology, including automation, microbial community design, bioprocessing, modelling, systems biology and strain engineering. To ensure research outputs are translated into meaningful change, projects are complemented by a range of different 'Paths' (e.g. commercialisation, education, regulation, communication, etc).

The Hub's objectives across these areas are:
'Applications': To advance engineering biology research to produce microbial foods.
'Capabilities': To develop new capabilities for the development of microbial foods using engineering biology (for the members of the Hub and beyond).
'Paths': To support present and future research into engineering biology for microbial foods, and translation of this research into positive, real-world impacts.

Meeting these three objectives will establish UK leadership in the field, with the Hub an internationally-recognised reference for this application of engineering biology.


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