In an office park on a leafy side street in Mountain View, California, a few miles from the headquarters of Google and Facebook, NovoNutrients CEO David Tze is showing off a technology so powerful, it just might avert human civilization from its 200-year collision course with disaster.
Striding past humming electrolyzers separating water molecules into their component elements and liquid chromatographers analyzing the molecular components of samples, he stops before a fluorescent-lighted cylindrical water tank with tiny specks floating in it. "These are the only macroscopic organisms we have here," he says. "These are Artemia."
Artemia salina, that is, a crustacean found in brackish waters and better known by its common name, brine shrimp. If you've heard of brine shrimp, it's likely because, in 1964, a man named Harold von Braunhut began marketing them as a pet-cum-novelty toy under the brand name Sea-Monkeys.
The cutting-edge science I'm looking at is a 55-year-old children's amusement from the back of a comic book?
"Yes," Tze confirms. But, he adds, "we don't give them the official Sea-Monkey feed. They just get our product."
That product is Novomeal, a protein developed for use in aquaculture, and the Sea-Monkeys are proof of concept. Fish food for fish farms, basically. The key ingredient in the commercial feed formulations used in the farming of salmon, tuna, and other carnivorous species prized by consumers is something called fishmeal, a powder made from the ground-up bodies of tiny fish such as anchovies. ("Fishmeal is strangely named: It's meal made from a fish, but it also happens to be an important part of a meal for a fish," Tze says.) Novomeal, a nutritionally complete substitute for fishmeal, is made from the proteins of bacteria and other single-celled organisms, incubated in giant steel vessels akin to beer vats, called bioreactors. Feed is the biggest cost of fish farming, a $232 billion global industry, and, given that the output of the world's overexploited oceans continues to decline, it's only getting more expensive. The supply of bacteria, on the other hand, is effectively infinite, as long as you have the nutrients to feed them.
That part--the nutrients--is why this particular fish food could play such a meaningful role in determining the fate of the planet. What the bacteria that make up Novomeal eat is CO2. You know: carbon dioxide, the stuff that's been building up in the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution, trapping solar energy and turning the seas acidic. If you believe the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change--or the U.S. Department of Defense, or the big petroleum companies--manmade global warming is a danger on par with no other, threatening to redraw coastlines, spark wars, imperil food and water supplies, alter weather patterns and marine currents, and displace hundreds of millions of people, all within our lifetimes. In the U.S., increasingly severe hurricane and wildfire seasons have already offered a preview of climate change's long-term effects; according to the IPCC, the world's economies must cut their carbon output in half by 2030 to avoid passing a critical threshold beyond which the consequences grow rapidly worse.
But if the need to curb carbon emissions is clear, how to do it without torpedoing the world's economy is anything but. Global energy demand is rising fast, and oil, coal, and gas continue to satisfy most of that need. As hundreds of millions of people in China, India, and other developing nations enter the middle class, they're demanding all the perquisites of the Western lifestyle, from hamburgers to new cars. Even if the electricity required to make all that stuff can be obtained from clean renewables, like wind and solar--and we're a long way from that--the production remains a dirty, carbon-intensive business. The plastic that's in everything from yogurt containers to carpet fibers is derived from fossil fuels, typically using energy also derived from fossil fuels. Cows raised for milk and meat have a carbon footprint comparable to that of automobiles. Even something as simple as growing rice can't be done without contributing to warming: Rice farming produces 13 percent of the world's methane, a potent greenhouse gas, because flooding the ground to make paddies brings dormant anaerobic bacteria roaring back to life. As long as more humans are eating more food and buying more stuff, getting a handle on climate change will be fiendishly difficult.
Or not, if David Tze has his say. What his company is constructing--along with others working similar angles in San Francisco and Berkeley and Skokie, Illinois--is nothing less than the infrastructure for an entirely new economy, one premised on producing food, energy, and material goods by sequestering harmful chemicals rather than by emitting them. It's an economy where we'll turn landfill into jet fuel, weave clothing out of spider silk, and make furniture out of mushrooms, all using primarily renewable power. "What we're doing has the potential to change not only the food system," Tze says, "but also the way other goods are manufactured."
"The path to getting out of here is not as bleak as it might seem," says Vijay Pande, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University and founding investor for the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz's biotech fund. Pande is writing a book about how the world can move from a petroleum-based economy to what he calls a bioeconomy. "We have to retool the whole economy, and that's the hard part," he says. "The good news," he adds, "is that we're doing so many things wrong, it's not too hard to start doing things better." The better way is synthetic biology. Those Sea-Monkeys just might save the world.
Synbio, as it's known, is the name given to a suite of techniques used to manipulate living cells and turn them, in effect, into tiny factories--factories for fuels, fabrics, fish food, you name it. "It's the redesigning of an organism for a functional end. You're changing around the pathway inside a cell," says Arvind Gupta, the managing director of biotech startup accelerator IndieBio, which has backed a slew of companies using synbio to make their industries more sustainable. Gupta calls it "the $100 trillion opportunity," since that's how much the world economy will grow over the next 25 years--provided we can find a way out of the current growth-versus-sustainability trap. "If we don't, there will be some pretty dire outcomes for the planet," he says. "We have to, and that's why we will."
The power of microbes as a production platform lies in their efficiency. More complex than the most sophisticated machines, microbes are radically adept at using the resources available to them, even when those resources are garbage or worse. With the right genes--which can be spliced into microbes artificially using Crispr or bred into them through accelerated mutations via a process called directed evolution--microbes can metabolize, well, almost anything, including noxious industrial byproducts. When they're not dining on CO2, the bugs in NovoNutrients' bioreactors can digest many toxic chemicals spewed out by oil refineries and coal power plants, substances like hydrogen sulfide and cyanide. To humans, hydrogen sulfide is a respiratory irritant so harsh, it was used as a chemical weapon in World War I; to the right kind of hungry bacterium, it's a source of amino acids.
Since they multiply exponentially through cellular division, microbes can grow far faster than any plant or animal. They don't have fur or beaks or bones that take energy to grow and then more to dispose of. They don't need to sleep, and, while algae and some bacteria are capable of photosynthesis, most don't need sunlight. All this makes them incredibly economical at turning nutrition into protein and other useful stuff. To gain a pound, a cow typically needs to eat at least six pounds of feed, giving beef a feed conversion ratio, or FCR, of 6:1 or higher. The corn and soy in that feed have to be planted, harvested, and transported, usually by exhaust-spewing machines. But, using microbes first discovered living within acidic springs in Yellowstone Park, a Chicago-based startup called Sustainable Bioproducts can turn a pound of starch into two pounds of nutritionally complete protein. Even subtracting water weight, its process has an FCR of 2:1. "In terms of the use of resources, it's extraordinarily efficient," says CEO Thomas Jonas. Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos agree: Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a climate-focused fund founded by those and other billionaires, was among those that put $33 million into Sustainable Bioproducts in February.
Pivot Bio--another Breakthrough Energy-backed startup--points to just how synbio could transform some of the world's most wasteful industries. Started in 2011, Pivot focuses on shrinking the environmental impact of agriculture by eliminating the need for fertilizer. To perform photosynthesis, plants need nitrogen, which abounds in the atmosphere but not in soil. For millennia, crops got their nitrogen from symbiotic bacteria that lived in and around their roots. But after farmers discovered they could accelerate crop growth with nitrogen fertilizers, those microbes gradually lost the ability to produce nitrogen. That was unfortunate, because fertilizer comes with a host of harms. Making it is extraordinarily energy-intensive, and roughly half of what's applied ends up either running off into waterways, where it collects in fish-killing dead zones--one in the Gulf of Mexico is larger than New Jersey--or converting to nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with 300 times the heat-trapping power of CO2. (Pivot's CEO, Karsten Temme, cites studies attributing as much as 10 percent of global warming to fertilizer manufacturing and use.)
Back in 2006, in a lab at the University of California, Temme, then a graduate student in bioengineering, and his professor Chris Voigt first wondered if they could restore microbes to their rightful place in farming. To date, they've raised more than $86 million on the idea, with their first commercial products debuting this spring. At Pivot's facility in Berkeley, they test soil samples sent in from farms all around the country, cultivate test crops in them to see what microbes flourish, tweak those microbes in their lab so they can produce nitrogen, and then send the enhanced bugs off to industrial fermentation facilities for production. At planting time, bags of microbial broth are hung from tractors so that a squirt of Pivot's product can be applied to each seed as it goes into the ground. In initial field tests conducted on corn crops in 2018, Pivot's microbes significantly outperformed chemical fertilizer across a range of geographies and soil types. That makes sense, because the microbe population scales in perfect proportion to the corn plant's nutritional demands. "They have this close-knit symbiosis, and that means they're able to spoon-feed the plant on a daily basis," says Temme.
Annual global sales for fertilizer amount to $230 billion. Although Pivot has competition--Ginkgo Bioworks, another well-capitalized synbio startup, is developing a similar product through a joint venture with Bayer--even a small piece of that pie would make for a huge business. But Temme says finding a sustainable way to feed a global population that will soon approach 10 billion is his motivation. "I look at my two little kids, and I'm like, if we don't come up with some better ways of fueling this world and driving everything we do, their lives are going to be challenged in ways we can't imagine," he says.
David Tze didn't always worry about the environment. During the first dot-com boom, he was the chief technology officer for Network International, a marketplace serving the oil and gas industry that has handled more than $7 billion worth of transactions for customers like ConocoPhillips. Looking back, he remembers "not really thinking through the implications of making it less expensive to get oil and gas out of the ground." But, in 2006, he saw the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth. As it did for a lot of people, the film made him really grapple with climate change for the first time. Since then, he says, "I have felt like I have something to make up for."
After leaving Network International, Tze managed a venture firm called Aquacopia, which invested in aquaculture. Demand for seafood was exploding, thanks to growing prosperity in Asia and health-consciousness in the West. But production of the world's fisheries had peaked around 1990. That made fish farming a boom industry.
One company Aquacopia managed was Nutrinsic. It used the wastewater from breweries and beverage plants as the medium for cultivating bacteria that could then be turned into protein meal for fish feed. Serving on Nutrinsic's board of directors gave Tze an intimate understanding of the fish-food game--its attractive economics but also its difficulties. Fish are farmed in far greater diversity than land animals, and each species eats a different diet, which varies according to life cycle. Carnivorous fish like salmon need nutrients they can get only from eating other fish, but the price of fishmeal, also called marine protein, is subject to intense fluctuations that can wipe out farmers' profits. And, since 1995, its price has more than quintupled.
After a decade managing investments, Tze was itching to be an operator again, and aquaculture seemed like the place to do it. While scouting for a niche in the industry, he flew to California for a conference called Fish Free Feed, which focused on alternatives to anchovy-based fishmeal, like insect meal and soy. While walking through an exhibition area, Tze passed a table for a company named Oakbio. On it were some faded color handouts and a vial of brown powder. A sign said the powder was made from bacteria, which Tze found intriguing. He grabbed a handout and stuffed it in his bag.
Back at work in New York City, Tze finally read the handout and saw what he'd missed: The feedstock for the bacteria was industrial CO2, obtained from a cement plant. "That blew my mind," he recalls. "We're talking about a technology where you could have a new pillar of the food system that's entirely decoupled from agriculture and fossil fuels."
Oakbio's founder, Brian Sefton, had come to that juncture from a very different starting point. As an undergraduate zoology student at Berkeley, he'd been an ardent environmentalist, going door-to-door to gather signatures protesting a local cement plant that was a notorious polluter. When he started his company, in 2009, it was with the explicit goal of valorizing, or finding a use for, industrial CO2 emissions. "It sounds fairly exotic, but really it's what a lot of what we use on earth is made of," he says. (Tze invested in Oakbio in 2017 and renamed it NovoNutrients.)
Lisa Dyson sees it the same way. Her startup, Kiverdi, uses carbon dioxide-eating bacteria to manufacture oils and proteins. Chief among those is palm oil, a commodity whose production is uniquely damaging to the environment: It's largely grown on land freed up by clearing and burning virgin rainforest. This practice has made Indonesia one of the world's top emitters of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Kiverdi says its process requires 1/10,000th the space to produce the same amount of oil.
The prevalence of slash-and-burn farming points to one key obstacle synbio startups face: The incumbents are artificially cheap because they aren't paying the true costs of the collective resources they're using or destroying. After a wave of investment in renewable-energy startups in the early 2000s, a drop in the price of crude oil largely wiped them out. "There are incentives in the fossil fuel sector that make it impossible to compete," says Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech, which uses synbio to produce low-carbon fuels.
But companies like Holmgren's enjoy their own unfair advantage: a resource that's free or, in many cases, has negative cost. In LanzaTech's case, that's carbon monoxide. In shotgun facilities adjacent to oil refineries, steel mills, and solid-waste gasification plants, LanzaTech's microbes--anaerobic bacteria of the genus Clostridium--metabolize that carbon monoxide into what becomes aviation-grade ethanol; the leftover bacteria are turned into an animal feed ingredient. Like other ethanol fuels, when combusted, it emits considerably less CO2 than kerosene or gasoline. LanzaTech has raised more than $250 million, and has a deal with Virgin Atlantic to develop cleaner jet fuels. Last October, its product was used in the first-ever commercial airline flight powered in part by waste gas; Virgin founder Richard Branson greeted passengers when they landed.
Transportation accounts for 14 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and aviation is a growing slice of that. Holmgren became obsessed with those figures while serving as vice president in charge of renewable energy at UOP, a division of Honeywell formerly called Universal Oil Products. The problem with biofuels, she thought, was that making them required corn or other feedstocks, which meant using resources that would otherwise go toward feeding people. "That's what I used to stay up at night thinking about," she says. Seeking a way out of this bind, she talked to pioneering cleantech investor Vinod Khosla, who told her about LanzaTech.
"Using oil is kind of a dumb idea," says Vijay Pande. Fossil fuels, he says, are "nature's carbon sequestration. Nature puts this stuff in the ground, and that's a good place for it. We're just undoing that." Oil took over the world economy not just because it was useful, he continues, but also because it was cheap to obtain, and because its processing involved the making of byproducts that could be turned into valuable chemicals and materials. "We make things out of plastic because plastic was originally free," Pande notes. But synbio reverses that dynamic. "Now the new thing that's free is all the CO2 in the atmosphere," he says, and that CO2 can be turned into protein or fuel. That means that "the challenge and opportunity are one and the same."
A few months from now, in late 2019 or early 2020, NovoNutrients will start selling Novomeal. Although the company started out with the slogan "Capture carbon, not fish," Tze and Sefton aren't counting on fish farmers' environmental sympathies to make their business model work. But luckily, they don't need to. Demand for marine protein isn't going anywhere but up. The price of hydrogen is falling, and there is no shortage of free carbon dioxide belching out of factories, power plants, and automobiles. And feeding fish is only the beginning. With the increasing popularity of alternative proteins of all kinds, from almond milk to plant-based burgers, Tze foresees a day when NovoNutrients will be a supplier to the processed-food industry as well. "It's more of a question of consumer preferences," he says. "Today, it'd be very hard to run a Super Bowl ad that convinces people that they should be eating bacterial protein."
But sea change sometimes happens fast. "If you're open to completely new ways of producing fuels and chemicals, these synthetic biology approaches are going to unlock a different future," says LanzaTech's Holmgren. The synbio revolution is in its early days. But it's already possible to see a time when it will be easier to make a dollar by taking carbon out of the atmosphere than by putting more into it. If we pass that tipping point, anything is possible. "Will it be fast enough? That's up to us," says Holmgren. But, she warns, "never bet against science."