Why do we need to eat protein, and what goes into its production?

Proteins are the basic constituents of life and perform all critical functions within an organism. Proteins are composed of twenty different building blocks called amino acids, which are strung together in myriad combinations to create elaborately folded structures with diverse properties and activities. Every living being needs to either produce or consume amino acids in order to live and grow. Nine amino acids are essential for vertebrate organisms, which include humans and all the animals we raise for meat (for example beef, poultry and fish). Because we are unable to make our own, these essential amino acids (EAAs) need to be present in our diets, and the requirement for EAAs is actually the main reason for the importance of protein in our diets. Similarly, when raising animals for meat, EAAs need to be present in the correct amounts in animal feed to support the animals’ growth and weight gain.

Methionine is the most important EAA for chickens and other poultry, because birds require large amounts of it for rapid growth and health. Methionine is therefore a key ingredient in poultry feed. A large and dedicated industry has developed around producing over one million tons of methionine that are fed to chickens and turkeys every year. In the US alone, where roughly 10 billion chickens are raised every year, this requires adding 400 million pounds of methionine, with a value of almost a billion dollars, to animal feed.

But this industry has a dirty secret that is practically unknown to consumers. Although methionine is a natural, biological substance, it is produced in a synthetic chemical process in large manufacturing plants that use highly toxic raw materials derived from petroleum as synthesis precursors. So this key ingredient in poultry feed is actually a chemical produced in massive chemical plants around the world. If you picture a facility similar to an oil refinery creating food ingredients you will see that there is something wrong here that needs to be corrected.

All other EAAs are made in fermentative processes in which microbes such as yeasts or bacteria that have been optimized for amino acid production convert sugars (for example those derived from corn starch) into an amino acid which is then purified. Fermentation is a natural, biological and renewable process that is appropriate for making bio-ingredients. Beer, wine and many other fermented beverages and foods are made in this manner.

So if methionine is a natural substance and fermentation is the preferred way to produce it, why is methionine not manufactured biologically ? The answer lies in the complex manner in which microorganisms convert sugars to other ingredients, and the difficulty of re-programming them to make one product very efficiently and cheaply. Methionine can be made by fermentation, but it is more expensive than methionine made by chemical synthesis. And because meat producers are under tremendous price pressures to minimize their input costs, there has been no incentive to replace chemically derived methionine with biological methionine.

But the world of biotechnology is changing and becoming more technologically advanced every year which means that bio-production is more and more able to compete with chemical production methods. Synthetic biologists around the US and in other parts have created new and advanced genetic tools that can build better microbes whose metabolism is singularly focused on one product. In essence we are turning microorganisms into miniature factories for making chemicals and nutrients. In the past decade, these tools have been used to create specialized microbes with impressive arrays of biosynthetic capabilities. And the same synthetic biologists are now attacking methionine as the last holdout in the amino acid space.

Primordial Genetics is one of the companies vying to become the next-generation methionine producers using biological production processes. We are leveraging our powerful Function Generator™ genetic technology to enable fermentative production of methionine that is less expensive to produce than chemically synthesized methionine and therefore well-positioned to compete in the methionine markets.

Sound interesting? Contact us for more information.

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