Fermentor / Foto: Mikal Schlosser

Cell factories produce milk protein without the use of a cow

Tuesday 03 Dec 19


Peter Ruhdal Jensen
Professor, Head of Research Group
National Food Institute
+45 20 85 56 01

Take a residual product from the food industry and instead of discarding it, look at it as a side stream and use it to develop a new food. The National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark, can e.g. make milk protein without the use of a single cow. Rather, a cell factory does all the work.

At the National Food Institute, researchers can make a bacterium produce milk proteins in a so-called cell factory. This is a smart idea, because if you can make bacteria convert side streams into milk proteins efficiently and profitably, you can produce foods that are high in protein without having access to animal products.

As the world population keeps growing, there is an increased demand for healthy and tasty foods that are rich in proteins. Finding efficient and environmentally friendly methods to produce and grow foods that are able to feed billions of people is proving to be quite a challenge.

Previously the pigs could have it – at best 

An essential part of working with cell factories is to utilize the side streams—residual products—which are created during the production of foods and thus produce another product from the side stream.

Whey from milk processing contains large quantities of sugar, which may have previously been thrown out or used as pig feed, at best. Instead, dairies will in the future be able to convert the sugar into a substance which will be very valuable to the food industry in the future. This will offer a more efficient resource utilization and thus a more sustainable food production.

A cell factory turns one substance into something else
"The ambition is to learn how to make the most of all side streams. This will have a positive impact on our emission of greenhouse gases, and when all comes to all: The greater utilization of the foods we produce, the smaller impact on our agricultural land. In the future scenario, we will not only use the side streams from dairies, breweries, and other food production. We will also utilize all resources from the agricultural sector."
Professor Peter Ruhdal Jensen

The cell factory can turn a side stream such as lactose into butter aroma by feeding a bacterium with the milk sugar which then spits out butter aroma – a food ingredient that food companies can use as flavouring in different products, from cookies to sauces.

To produce the butter aroma, the researchers have slightly modified certain processes, which naturally take place inside the bacterium. The bacterium has been genetically modified: Some genes have been removed whereby routes in the metabolism have been redirected and the enzymatic reactions have been changed.

The Institute can make cell factories in two different ways: One is the natural way, another is by means of genetic modification. In the natural way, the researchers screen for suitable bacterium. 

In the natural way, the researchers screen for suitable bacterium. They are looking for a needle in a haystack so to speak, and they may find a lactic acid bacterium suitable for producing butter aroma. The good thing about the natural method is that the industry is can freely use it to produce food and without labelling. However, the disadvantage is that it is a very time-consuming process.

The genetic modification method, on the other hand, is much faster, but the disadvantage is that the food ingredient must undergo an authorization process and will subsequently be subject to labelling requirements because it is a genetically modified organism, GMO.

Lactic acid bacteria turn lactose into alcohol

The Institute’s researchers have developed a patented technology based on a cell factory that uses lactic acid bacteria to turn residual lactose from dairies into ethanol – the alcohol contained in spirits.

Read more 

Read more about the National Food Institute’s biotechnological research in an article from the National Food Institute’s 60th anniversary publication: Cell factories produce milk protein without the use of a cow.

The National Food Institute is celebrating its 60th birthday this year, as it was decided on June 5, 1959 to establish a national food institute in Denmark.

You can also read the articles: At the forefront of healthy, safe and sustainable foods, The hunt for nature’s own additives and Insects’ safe journey to the dinner table.


The National Food Institute develops new and better food products for a growing population

According to forecasts from the UN, the world population will grow by more than two billion people over the next decades so that the total world population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. At the same time, the middle class is growing, and more people are moving from the countryside to the cities.

As such, there will be more mouths to feed, and the demand for healthy and convenient foods is also increasing.

The UN estimates that in 2050 we must produce 70% more food than we do today to feed the world population. However, the current way of producing food will most likely not be able to meet this demand.

There is a need for research and innovation to find new sources of healthy, safe, and better foods and food components, and with lower environmental impact.

The National Food Institute’s vision is to make a difference by developing new and better food products for the growing population. The institute finds new raw materials and ingredients, assesses their nutritional content and the safety in using them – and develops technologies with which to produce them.

Foods must be healthy, safe and preferably also tasty.

Image: National Food Institute

17 APRIL 2021