Choosing to Grow Closer Together


– Fawn Weaver



Microbes were there before us. They are now a part of us. Some of what is us stemmed from them.

It’s impossible to draw a line between where microbes end and we begin. Although we have always been close with them, lately we have been getting to know them much better. By knowing our microbes, we stand a chance of deeper self-reflection.

My exploration into the latest developments between microbes and humans started about a year ago when I first learned about a startup that uses air, electricity and microbes to make edible protein powder. This article only scratches the surface of what humans and microbes have been collaborating on as of late. Nonetheless, it is a small summary of a few industries and a few types of organisms that have the potential to transform our collective future in a big, beautiful and, hopefully, positive way. 

For this article I collaborated with my close friend and a talented artist Diana Kaplun, who painted the watercolor illustrations. She lives and works in Almaty, Kazakhstan and firmly believes that beauty will save the world. 


Scientists have long been dreaming of a sustainable way to make food out of thin air. The original concept dates back to the 60s and NASA’s investigation into utilizing microbes to produce edible matter on long missions where the air exhaled by astronauts is rich in CO2 and could, in theory, become a source of their own nutrition in a closed loop.

Knallgas bacteria is a class of organisms that can do just that — make edible protein molecules by processing CO2 out of air in the presence of electricity. The result is neutral-tasting, protein-rich powder that resembles flour. The powder can be used as an ingredient in a large variety of products from pasta to ice cream. 

Next year, this type of protein might become a reality for the masses. The bacteria, which is commonly found in soil, does not need any genetic modification. Currently, at least two startups – one in Finland and one in California – plan to commercialize knallgas bacteria to produce the protein of the future. 

Besides being made out of air, microbial protein’s claims to fame are very lofty. Firstly, it can be manufactured, from inception to completion, under one roof anywhere in the world. It is the most sustainable and environmentally friendly protein in the world, requiring 100X less water and 20X less land than plants. And its price does not depend on external factors, assuming we don’t run out of air in the near future.


Two environmental problems that can be solved simultaneously by harnessing microbes are plastic pollution and excess methane from wastewater.

Excess methane can be useful to bacteria called Methylocystis parvus. And it’s useful for us for know that M. parvus uses methane as a source of energy and stores it in a form of a polymer that can be then isolated from the bacteria and turned into non-petroleum based biodegradable polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) plastic. Despite scientists having known about these bacteria’s ability to make plastic for almost 100 years, the technology that allows us to harvest it is very new.

Unlike its popular rival polylactic acid (PLA) that can only be composted at a commercial site, PHA can biodegrade in many environments, including the oceans. PHA is also very versatile. It can be turned into small packaging items like cups, jars, and bottles that are usually hard to recycle due to limitations of the injection molding process.

Fiber-grade PHA can be used in outerwear polyester clothes, shoes and ropes. Flexible packaging films and wraps that are difficult to recycle can also be made with PHA. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, production of PHA using methanotrophic bacteria like M. parvus can utilize methane from wastewater, allowing plastic production plants to be placed adjacent to existing wastewater facilities. Sadly, as the technology is still in its infancy, it is currently not cost-effective compared to fossil fuel-based plastics.


We cherish the fermentation of the past and celebrate it in the present.  But we have mixed emotions about the radical changes that precision fermentation might bring to the agricultural sector of the future.

Baby formula, dairy products, egg white protein, natural flavors, buttery fat, alcoholic beverages: wine, whiskey and sake, animal-free collagen, personal care ingredients, mushroom leather, wormless silk, protein powder, biodegradable plastic, farmed fish feed, dog food and, of course, animal-free meat – all these products can be “brewed” from “farmed” bacteria, yeasts and mycelium. All thanks to the process called precision fermentation. 

In precision fermentation, the single-celled organisms are not eaten, but merely used as a living factory to produce in-demand proteins that have traditionally been sourced from animals.

While admirable in their attempts to slow down climate change, such technologies sound straight out of a sci-fi book. Could you ever have dreamed of living through the times when “real” dairy milk or real egg white protein was produced in a sterile lab vat of sugar, water and recombinant bacteria or yeasts. But it is happening. Shouldn’t we be happy about the bright green microbial future ahead of us? 

While a synthetic jacket made of mushroom leather or spider silk proteins produced by bacteria will mostly elicit positive emotions, microbe-derived lab-produced food leaves most people confused and concerned. Take the next generation of milk, for example: made by scientists inside of a bioreactor from genetically modified yeasts. That might sound appetizing only to very few, despite its lack of bovine growth hormones or antibiotics and the fact that all microbial cells have been filtered out of the final product. While only time will grant any kind of status to these ultra-processed novel foods, the environmental effect from their production is profoundly impactful, dramatically decreasing the need for water and land. 

Our generation has many reasons to be anxious about the future. By choosing to deepen our relationship with microbes we’ve opened a promising frontier. There are still more questions than answers and it’s unlikely we will live happily ever after, but there sure is a colony of hope.


When genetically modified, it can produce isobutanol from CO2 feedstock  -- a potentially high energy-density electrofuel that could use existing infrastructure to replace oil as a transportation fuel.


When fermented in a controlled environment, this fungus can be turned into mycoprotein that is known for its high protein and fiber and low fat content. It is used in vegetarian and vegan foods as a meat substitute or protein source, and as a sustainable protein option in dog food and farmed fish feed. If you have eaten Quorn, you have tasted fermented F. venenatum.

E. COLI BL21: 

If you are thinking about spoiled supermarket greens, ripe for a recall, think again because this recombinant bug is a biotech’s darling. There are many strains of E. coli that exist and scientists like to modify them to extract desired molecules. The specific strain BL21 of E. coli is used in a wide range of industries from production of enzymes to vaccine development. Remarkably, recombinant E. coli BL21 can produce spider silk proteins.  


Reishi tea is good for you, and so are the leather and biodegradable packaging made of it. It can also be used in construction as an insulation material and a small-scale filtration system for wastewater treatment. 


A promising bacteria for self-healing concrete. Concrete is the second most used substance on Earth after water. Maintenance of concrete structures comes with many challenges. B.subtilis spores are incorporated into concrete mix during its production and become activated when a structure is exposed to moisture. Once activated, bacteria start to consume organic matter within concrete (usually calcium lactate) and produce calcium carbonate, which fills any cracks and voids.


While not a microorganism, oyster mushroom mycelium is so versatile it might receive an award for being a sustainability hero. 

Promising applications include textiles, biodegradable packaging, bioremediation, art and design and construction. It can even be used in agriculture as a soil conditioner and  natural pesticide. Lastly, this fungus is a very approachable educational material.