Consumer awareness of climate change and animal welfare are driving a meatless meat revolution. Unlike pasture-raised meats, plant- and fermentation-based proteins are low-emission, and require very little water and land use. Transitioning away from mega-greenhouse gas-emitting foods like beef only tackles part of the crisis. Our planet is still choking on excess carbon dioxide.
With synthetic biology, it is possible to transform CO2 from a harmful gas into delicious, life-sustaining nutrition. I’ve previously written about the forgotten space tech that could feed the world, one of its practitioners is Lisa Dyson, Ph.D., CEO of Kiverdi, whose initiative Air Protein aims to transform carbon dioxide into meat-free meat. In recognition of her work, Dyson was recently awarded the SynBioBeta 2020 Bio-Innovator of the Year Award.
“The food industry is one of the largest greenhouse gas-emitting sectors, emitting more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector, including cars,” says Dyson. As a whole, Kiverdi is focused on leveraging atmospheric carbon in supply chains throughout multiple industries. Air Protein uses Kiverdi’s platform and enabling technologies to develop delicious, nutritious, sustainable foods.
From physics to food
Dyson’s path to the intersection of food and climate science has been an unusual one. Her Ph.D. is in theoretical high energy physics — she is only the fourth Black woman ever to receive this degree. While physics may sound like an unusual starting point for a synthetic biologist, Dyson says that her training taught her to solve all problems through the scientific method. And in this case, the root problem is too much carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere.
“The problem we were looking at was, how do you take something destructive and use it in a positive way?” she says. In other words, could Kiverdi find a way to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and transform it into a useful resource?
Dyson’s training as a physicist enables her to think further outside the box than perhaps a traditional biologist. She embraces the view that Earth is like a spaceship: an enclosed habitat with constrained resources. So, it made sense for Dyson to turn to the early days of spaceflight for answers. After all, NASA is the world expert in CO2 recycling for spaceships.
Farming from the air
There, Dyson found that the idea of turning atmospheric CO2 into a useful product through a closed-loop system has been around since the dawn of the space age. NASA discovered that hydrogenotrophs—single-celled microorganisms that metabolize hydrogen for energy—could convert astronauts’ exhaled carbon dioxide into a nutritious, carbon-rich crop. Dyson and her team reawakened this technology and upgraded it for the biotech age.
Just like plants, hydrogenotrophs need a carbon source. They absorb carbon dioxide from the air, use it for fuel, and release oxygen and water vapor back into the atmosphere. Plants also need water, solar energy, and nutrients from the