What Are Beneficial Microbes & Why Should We Be Using Them to Make Food?
Fresh content for optimists.
What Are Beneficial Microbes & Why Should We Be Using Them to Make Food?
by Elena, Move to Root
Ahhh, microbes. The vast array of complex microscopic organisms that makes the phrase “there’s more to life than meets the eye” ring oh so true.
Lately, microbes have been getting a bad rap. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve all seen firsthand just how much power a microbe can unwittingly hold. But what if we told you there are billions of microbial species living around you (and inside you—otherwise known as the human microbiota) that are not only harmless, but are crucial to human life itself? It’s true. Microbes make up a sizable portion of the species inhabiting our planet, and we need them to sustain life more than you might realize. Let us explain.
Although they tend to steal the spotlight, pathogens make up a tiny percentage of microbes in their entirety.
The Greek-rooted word microbe literally means “small life.” It counts microscopic species from all three domains of life (Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya) as members, as well as viruses. Microbes that cause disease are referred to as pathogenic, think viruses, while harmless or beneficial microbes can be referred to as non-pathogenic (we prefer the term “beneficial” or even “tiny superheroes,” but to each their own). Although they tend to steal the spotlight, pathogens make up a very small percentage of microbes in their entirety. Today, we’d like to take back that spotlight and shine it on our personal favorite topic: beneficial microbes.
Beneficial microbes: why do they deserve so much positive attention?
We’re glad you asked. Just as plants provide us vital oxygen and fresh food, over the years, scientists have discovered that beneficial microbes contribute to human life quite generously, right before our very eyes (when looking through a microscope, anyway). From disease prevention and treatment to improved farming practices to the potential to slow climate change, it’s safe to say that the hype around microbes is very warranted.
How do we interact with beneficial microbes in everyday life?
There are the obvious examples:
- Foods like sauerkraut, soy sauce, sourdough, and cheese are fermented by lactic acid bacteria (often members of the Lactobacillaceae or Streptococcaceae families).
- Probiotics, taken to maintain gut health, rely on a combination of live beneficial bacteria and yeast that already live in your body (commonly Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and\or Saccharomyces boulardii).
- Your breads only rise because of baker’s yeast, the general term for Saccharomyces cerevisiae. We can thank this same fungal species for nutritional yeast, a nutrient-rich savory dietary supplement frequently used as a condiment by vegans and vegetarians.
Then, there are more complex examples:
- Testing for Covid-19 via PCR is only possible as we know it, thanks to a seismic scientific discovery made in Yellowstone National Park. The isolation of T. aquaticus’s enzyme, Taq polymerase, revolutionized DNA replication and scientific research.
- Millions of people with diabetes rely on synthetic human insulin, a feat of genetic engineering that frequently leverages E. coli or S. cerevisiae as mini insulin-producing factories. (We know your association of E. coli is probably food poisoning, but it can be made to work for you!)
- Penicillin and an entire family of drugs come from Penicillium, a type of fungus with antibacterial properties that led to the first mass-produced antibiotic.
And that’s just to name a few! We encounter and benefit from far more microbes than we’re aware of. The microbial varieties are seemingly endless, and quite fascinating, if we do say so ourselves.
Are fungi considered microbes?
Fungi are some of the most abundant organisms on Earth, representing approximately 25% of Earth’s biomass. Many fungi are considered microbes, but not all are small enough to fit the bill. Remember, ‘microbe’ is just a blanket term for any organism or virus too small to be seen by the naked eye. You know those mushrooms (the fruiting body of a fungus) that pop up in your yard after a heavy rainfall? Those are fungi, but are too big to be considered microbes. While we don’t suggest eating this kind (although deadly lawn mushrooms are rare, we’d prefer you didn’t take the gamble), fungi are some of Earth’s most talented natural decomposers. They turn organic material into fertile compost for your grass and beyond. In fact, the beneficial uses of fungi stretch far and wide. From the prized culinary Winter Black Truffle (fungus, not microbe) to various strains of yeasts (like Saccharomyces bayanus—the one used to make your Friday night glass of red—which is both fungus and microbe), humans have benefitted from fungi since the beginning of, well, humans. Today, scientists are discovering uses of beneficial fungi microbes that can pave the way for a better world for future generations (we know, it sounds too good to be true, but stay with us!).
What else are microbes useful for?
Take Fusarium strain flavolapis, the microbe discovered by Nature’s Fynd, for example. Although older than humankind, this strain of fungal microbe was discovered just over a decade ago by Ph.D. student Mark Kozubal during a project supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA. While researching microbes at Yellowstone National Park, Mark discovered this extraordinary extremophile (a resilient microbe, able to withstand ‘extreme’ conditions) that has origins in a highly acidic hot spring. A team of curious scientists and explorers joined Mark, and together they developed a breakthrough fermentation technology to grow Fusarium strain flavolapis that gave birth to a sustainable, nutritious, efficient food source that can be grown anywhere: Fy Protein™.
What is the potential impact of microbes on the future of Planet Earth?
With the need for resilient and efficient sources of protein becoming increasingly crucial to sustaining our rapidly warming planet, we think the role and impact microbes will have are going to be planet-saving. While plant-based and other alternative proteins are promising steps in the right direction in terms of sustainability, many of these options taste less-than-great and still require immense amounts of unsustainable resources. This is where microbial proteins like the fungi-based Fy ProteinTM come into play. FyTM is much easier on the environment than growing traditional protein sources. Compared to beef production, FyTM requires 99% less land, 99% less water, and releases 94% fewer greenhouse gases.
Looking ahead to the future of beneficial microbes in the food industry
We know, ‘beneficial microbes in food’ doesn’t have the best ring to it—yet. But at Nature’s Fynd, it’s our mission to change that by making amazing foods that nourish people and nurture the planet. Beyond all of the aforementioned benefits of microbes, we can use them to create some seriously great tasting foods; think savory meatless breakfast patties and delicious dairy-free cream cheese. And we’d be willing to bet almost anything that you’d never guess these products were made from microbial proteins. Now that you understand the remarkable role beneficial microbes can play in the future of our food supply, and therefore, the health of good olé’ Planet Earth, we hope you feel as optimistic about the future as we do!
To learn more about Nature’s Fynd and new products made with the fungi-based protein Fy, sign up for our newsletter via our website: https://www.naturesfynd.com