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Egg without the chicken

Eggs may boast a perfect shape and Michelin-star food credentials, but they have a technological drawback: they need living incubators. Now a Finnish biotech has raised $10.5 million to produce egg white protein without the chicken. Onego Bio, based in Helsinki, uses microbial fermentation to produce an animal-free egg alternative they call bioalbumen.

Credit: Onego Bio

The food industry employs massive quantities of egg protein albumin and bovine whey. Their impact on carbon production and climate change is noteworthy: a recent study revealed that the production of animal-based food contributes 57% of food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Global egg production in particular has almost doubled in the past 20 years and is expected to reach 138 million tonnes by 2030. Onego aims to lift the food industry’s reliance on animal farming with a cellular fermentation alternative.

“It doesn’t taste any different to regular meringue. That’s the boring part, it’s just the same,” says Christopher Landowski, chief technology officer. Landowski started as academic researcher at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland in Espoo, before founding Onego with Maija Itkonen, CEO and Jussi Joensuu, chief operations officer. The bioreactor-made alternative displayed the gelling, foaming, binding and emulsifying properties prized by chefs, home cooks and food manufacturers.

Onego has chosen a fungus, the filamentous ascomycete Trichoderma reesei, to make the alternative albumin. T. reesei was first identified in the Solomon Islands during the Second World War, when tents and clothes were being eaten away by the fungus’s lignocellulose-degrading enzymes. Industrial enzyme companies like Novozymes first harnessed the microbes’ dissolving prowess for laundry powders; the dairy industry also turned to T. reesei to produce a recombinant alternative to chymosin, the enzyme that coagulates casein in cheese, traditionally taken from cow rumen.

The fungus thrives in bioreactors. “We repurpose it a bit to make a food ingredient. It’s perfect for food, it is safe and it is scalable” says Landowski.

The scientists at Onego express recombinant ovalbumin protein by introducing an expression construct into the T. reesei strains that have been engineered to be protease deficient. These expression strains are then grown in a bioreactor, the bioalbumen is isolated through downstream processing, and the resulting protein powder is dried. The lab-made egg white is sticky and foamy. “We make meringues and cakes, nougat, angel cake and deserts — just from bioalbumen.” The final product may need fine-tuning, however. Albumin is 50% of egg white. “When you use egg white, you don’t notice, but there are up to 158 different proteins in that mixture. So we want to find good combinations to strengthen the properties, to help gelation and foaming,” Landwoski adds.

Beyond the positive environmental impact, keeping fewer chickens could prevent infectious diseases, such as bird flu, from transferring to humans. “We are not trying to replace chickens but to get more protein to the market, and hopefully, that will mean fewer chickens living in better conditions,” says Landowski.

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Melton, L. Egg without the chicken. Nat Biotechnol 40, 812 (2022).

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