Interview with Scott Farrow, Noblegen Vice President of Innovation and Research Operations
WT: Congratulations on advancing to the semi-finals in the Deep Space Food Challenge! What has this meant for the Noblegen team?
Farrow: The Deep Space Food Challenge was an opportunity to try something new. In this regard, we wanted to grow our platform organism, Euglena gracilis, using human waste to feed astronauts.
We had always suspected Euglena could be grown using human waste feedstock. This was our opportunity to test it. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that it could be grown using human waste.
The discovery creates opportunities to build a circular food solution in space.
For Noblegen, we strive to think outside the box to overcome challenges. The DSFC allowed us to address a hurdle that must be overcome to legitimize space travel. We were happy to participate and pleased with the early-stage results.
WT: The genesis of Noblegen was a science fair project that led to more research and an aha! Moment. Tell us about that.
Farrow: Noblegen was inspired by our founder’s (Adam Noble) high school science fair project that was focused on water remediation using the microalgae Euglena gracilis as a biofilter for municipal and industrial wastewater streams.
Euglena gracilis is a remarkable microorganism with many capabilities. Among these is the ability to bioremediate heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and toxins from the environment.
The science fair project focused on nano silver accumulations. Since then the company has discovered numerous other features for Euglena including its ability to produce nutrients for sustainable food, personal care ingredients, and even novel medicines. Most recently, we learned how to precisely control the metabolism of Euglena, and this will bring several new opportunities for our company including partnerships and collaborations.
WT: Euglena gracilis is classified as a vegan protein but it has multidimensional characteristics. What are the properties of Euglena that have been recently identified?
Farrow:Euglena gracilis is technically classified as a protist. As such, Euglena is a bit of an oddball and contains genetic parts from plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and even viruses.
This breadth of genetic complexity is possible because Euglena routinely underwent horizontal gene transfer throughout its evolutionary history.
This means the Euglena picked up genetic parts from its neighbouring organisms giving it new capabilities that might otherwise have led to its extinction.
One of the recent discoveries pertaining to Euglena is the ability of some species to synthesize antimicrobial/antiproliferative compounds.
Euglena has been overlooked for decades but we are increasingly learning about its remarkable capabilities that can help overcome global challenges.
WT: It is interesting that microorganisms were the first life forms on our planet. It is also interesting that the human body depends on a healthy balance of microbiome. What are the benefits of Euglena consumption?
Farrow: Euglena is a cell packed with nutrients. It makes all the macronutrients like proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and importantly makes all essential amino acids and has a PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score) of close to 1 – the highest that any protein can achieve.
Euglena also provides essential vitamins and minerals.
Uniquely, Euglena makes high quantities of the glycopolymer paramylon which is an immune-boosting probiotic.
At Noblegen, our team has made tremendous strides to turn this glycopolymer into food, health, and personal care products.
Depending on how Euglena is grown, it makes varying amounts of all these components, making it an ideal solution for creating products with tailored nutrient profiles. In other words, if you want high-protein euglena or high-fat euglena you can direct its growth for the desired outcome.
WT: Can Euglena satisfy the carnivore?
Farrow: Because Euglena contains all essential amino acids, and fats, and has a very digestible protein, Euglena is nutritionally similar to its meat counterparts and could win over carnivores. For most non-meat manufacturers, organoleptic properties (how it smells, tastes, feels) still require improvements but this is a hurdle being faced by all vegan producers.
WT: In what ways can Euglena reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture?
Farrow: Euglena belongs to a category of agriculture known as cellular agriculture. Instead of raising animal meat or plants, microbes are grown for food.
What is so interesting about this food category is that growth is very efficient, can be done on an exceedingly small footprint, compared to traditional agriculture, uses less water, and the whole biomass of the microbe can be used for food/feed, etc.
It’s the next green revolution of agriculture that is thermodynamically favourable compared to its counterparts.
WT: The company profile states that Noblegen is an advanced digital biology company that employs microorganisms to reshape the world’s linear food systems. How has this been accomplished?
Farrow: Noblegen uses microorganisms (like Euglena gracilis)and science to overcome human challenges like malnutrition and undernutrition.
Because Euglena can be grown in numerous environments, and conditions using several different feedstocks, it is a great candidate to tackle undernutrition in under-developed and developing countries. Within the food space, our goal is to use readily available feedstocks as inputs to grow Euglena biomass for food and fertilizer. One of our goals is to use advanced computing to automate the growth process to make it as efficient and sustainable as possible.
WT: What can you tell us about the technology? What part does fermentation play?
Farrow: Fermentation is the process of breaking down organic substrate using microorganisms under certain conditions to produce biomass or other chemicals such as alcohol.
In our process, Euglena is fed a combination of different Carbon, Nitrogen, and micronutrients to produce more biomass that can be used as food later on.
WT: Now you are off to the semi-finals in the DSFC. What will that involve?
Farrow: The Challenge is organized by the CSA and NASA. Initially, a design report was compiled that contained an overall high-level view of what the prototype could look like in terms of parts and processes. Phase 2 semi-final involved the fabrication of a food-ready prototype/production system that will then be judged by the representatives from the CSA to confirm its technology readiness. There are two more phases after this phase that we must qualify for and win prior to considering the next steps.
WT: A Deep Space Mission could last 3 or 4 years. How do you envision your Euglena Production System answering the questions about food variety, nutrition, and waste?
Farrow: Our food system deals specifically with the problem of waste, sustainability, and space limitations when it comes to outer space travel. Our idea strives to create a circular food system that upcycles astronaut waste into food in a small footprint.
The design strives to save water by recycling it back to the food production system, and with further development will lead to nutrient-dense foodstuff that will support the needs of astronauts.
When it comes to a diverse food experience in space using our technology, we are currently curbing organoleptic expectations in favour of technological advancements that will lead to a more circular food system.
Once efficiencies and technological challenges are achieved, we will turn our focus toward organoleptic enhancements. It is worth investing in the technological hurdles before focusing on the food quality and taste attributes.
WT: You are on a mission to reinvent the future of food sustainability and the meaning of food. What more is possible? How will your part in the DSFC disrupt food paradigms on Earth?
Farrow: Supply chains on Earth are mature. For example, in Canada, we grow grain that serves as food or feed for animals, which makes its way to our plates. Growing food with microorganisms like Eulena will allow for the creation of new supply chains that allow countries to gain control of their entire food production system while simultaneously making food more efficiently. For example, many developing countries rely on imported animal feed, which is susceptible to market conditions, geopolitical instability etc. Microbes like euglena provide a solution to these potential supply chain issues.
WT: How has the DSFC reframed your Company’s forward momentum?
Farrow: One of the great things this opportunity allowed us to do was collaborate with nearby Fleming College. Specifically, the CAWT (Centre for Advancement of Water and Wastewater Technologies) in Lindsay helped us develop our process and media, and the Mechatronics Department led the building of our prototype.
We hope to continue this collaboration as we evolve our prototype and proceed in the Challenge. We strongly believe that microbes will have a role in biological life support systems in space and with time and focus, an efficient solution will emerge. We hope to be part of that solution.
WT: What message would you like to leave for our viewers?
Farrow: Food systems have always been evolving and this evolution has enabled humans to inhabit the earth leading to technological advancements and discoveries that, on balance, improve our quality of life.
In this regard, the continued evolution of food systems will allow us to continue to advance our civilization while simultaneously facilitating innovations that improve our world and allow us to adapt to our ever-changing environment.