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Moldy Breakthrough: Koji Holds New Promises for Sustainable Food Production

In the ever-evolving landscape of food technology, biotechnology emerges as a key player, promising revolutionary changes in the food industry. With the advent of animal-free dairy products and convincing vegetarian meat substitutes already reshaping consumer choices, the spotlight now turns to microorganisms as the next frontier for cruelty-free and sustainable food production.

Fungi, a diverse kingdom of organisms renowned for their ability to produce an array of nutritious proteins, fats, antioxidants, and flavour molecules, stand out as a particularly promising avenue for culinary innovation. Vayu Hill-Maini, a chef-turned-bioengineer affiliated with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), is at the forefront of exploring the vast potential of fungi in creating novel tastes and textures through genetic modification.

In a recent breakthrough study published in Nature Communications, Hill-Maini and his collaborators from UC Berkeley, the Joint BioEnergy Institute, and the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability focused on Aspergillus oryzae, commonly known as koji mold. This multicellular fungus, historically utilized in East Asian cuisine for fermenting starches into staples like sake, soy sauce, and miso, served as their primary subject for genetic engineering experiments.

Using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system, the team developed a toolkit capable of making precise alterations to the koji mold's genome. Their objective was clear: enhance the mold's nutritional profile while elevating its potential as a sustainable food source. By enhancing the production of heme and ergothioneine—key components associated with meat-like flavors and cardiovascular health benefits, respectively—the once-white fungi transformed into a vibrant red, ready to be shaped into appetizing burgers with minimal processing.

Looking ahead, Hill-Maini aims to further refine the fungi's texture by manipulating the genes governing its cellular structure. By experimenting with fiber-like morphology and lipid composition, he envisions creating an even more meat-like experience, appealing to a wider audience of consumers.

Beyond the culinary realm, the implications of this research extend to synthetic biology as a whole. While bacteria and yeast have long been favored for biomanufacturing, multicellular fungi present a unique set of challenges due to their complex genomes. The development of a CRISPR-Cas9 toolkit tailored to fungi not only unlocks their potential as cellular factories for food production but also opens doors to diverse applications, including the synthesis of valuable chemicals, biofuels, and medicines.

The koji mold patty after frying. (Credit: Vayu Hill-Maini)

Jay Keasling, senior author of the study and a senior scientist at Berkeley Lab, emphasizes the significance of this advancement, highlighting fungi's efficiency in converting carbon into complex molecules. He envisions a future where engineered fungi play a pivotal role in addressing global challenges, from sustainable food production to renewable energy.

Hill-Maini's collaboration with chefs at Alchemist, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen, further underscores the fusion of science and gastronomy. By exploring the culinary potential of Neurospora intermedia, another multicellular fungus, they showcased how fungal chemistry could elevate dining experiences, bridging the gap between the laboratory and the kitchen.

As this research marks just the beginning of unlocking fungi's potential in food innovation, it signals a promising trajectory towards a more sustainable and flavorful future. With ongoing support from institutions like the Miller Institute and the Novo Nordisk Foundation, coupled with the Department of Energy's backing, the journey to harness the power of fungi for societal benefit continues to unfold.

[Image Credits: Marilyn Sargent/Berkeley Lab]


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