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Solving world hunger, one microbe at a time

Solving world hunger, one microbe at a time

originally posted at: https://medium.com/@elliotroth

Solving world hunger. Seems like a pretty hard problem. Using synthetic biology, we can find different ways to solve it.

Image: Flickr

The Problem

There simply isn’t enough cultivated land to support the massive cities that we have. The more people we pack into each square mile, the less food we can produce in that space and the more we have to rely on complex distribution systems from outside farms in order to make up for the lack of growing space.

The industrial revolution of the late 19th century brought about a substantial increase in the population and an exodus from agrarian communities into the urbanized environment of the city. This shift in population put a huge strain on the current means of food production.

The fastest means of getting plants to grow was through the use of fertilizer. Fertilizer (normally a mix of micro-nutrients such as phosphate, nitrates, etc.) was used to treat the soil to increase the yield of crops. The problem was that fertilizer was running out.

The most common source of fertilizer was the niter deposits that were being mined for agricultural use. Without the niter to spread on the soil, the crops were weak, spindly, and died much more quickly in harsh climates. The world’s scientists began searching for a solution to produce nitrates.

The air we breath is made up of 78% nitrogen by volume. With all this nitrogen in the air, Fritz Haber, a German chemist, invented the Haber-Bosch process which drew atmospheric nitrogen from the air and combined it with hydrogen to make ammonia, the primary ingredient in fertilizer.

This led to a revolution in the way we grew crops. No longer did the world have to rely on cumbersome supply chains for mined materials. Fertilizer was readily available from the very air.

However, Fritz Haber used the same process in order to manufacture chemical agents for the German army, that were used in WWI and later used as precursors to the gases that killed millions of Jews during the days of the Holocaust.

| Science is a double-edged sword. For every life it can save, it can also kill.

We are on the cusp of another agrarian revolution. The current process of food production is hugely unsustainable. Animals produce fully 24% of the total global CO emissions. It takes 1,799 gallons of water for one pound of beef (~7,000 l/kg). Something needs to change.

Global hunger comes from the inability for communities to produce their own food. This is due to the nutrient inefficiency of current methods of food production. To allow the next agrarian revolution to occur, we need to start looking at total nutrients produced per square foot. Instead of cultivating large-scale, bureaucratic-influenced and cumbersome supply chains for nutrient inefficient foods, we should take a look at distributing the means of food production to communities with a lack of space and resources.

The Solution

Think small. Like, really small. Arthrospira maxima, a unicellular blue-green algae otherwise known as Spirulina, is between 1 and 10 microns in size so in a given drop of water there are 4.5 to 6.2 million spirulina cells.

These cells are among the most nutrient dense organisms known to man. It has an incredibly high protein content and contains all the essential amino acids. It is a unicellular algae that grows incredibly quickly in many different solutions, and has even been grown in human urine, removing around 85–98% of the urea after only 7 days. The optimal growth conditions are above 30°C and above 8.5 pH. The tank can be open or closed but slight agitation is necessary. A few micro-nutrients found in baking soda, potassium nitrate, salt, potassium phosphate, and iron sulfate are enough to sustain the culture and it is autotrophic as long as a source of carbon dioxide is present. The doubling time of spirulina at optimal conditions is 23 hours. You can grow enough food for a 4 person family (12 meals a day) in a 25 gallon tank (~95 liters).

These intrinsic properties of spirulina could make it especially useful in low-resource settings like space. It was a historical food source for the Aztecs in Mesoamerica. Nowadays it is being proposed by NASA’s CELSS and ESA’s MELISSA initiatives as a suitable food for long-term space missions. This super-food only needs a few metabolic modifications in order to allow it to be a complete meal replacement.

Conclusion

The next agrarian revolution will be one led by synthetic biology. We can no longer sustain the agriculture-industrial complex. Food is a basic human right, and it will begin to function as such. We have the means of production, meaning there is no founded reason for food scarcity any longer.

I’m of the opinion that companies are the drivers of innovation. I’d like to imagine a company that enables all of this to happen. Spira takes common spirulina and modifies the unicellular algae to increase production of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, and insert the metabolic pathways for Vitamin D and Vitamin B12. This enables spirulina to act as a complete meal replacement for health fanatics, 3rd world settings, and space-based operations. It sends mother cultures to those in need of food all over the world.

Let’s work on Spira together. Let’s solve world hunger using biology. ER.

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