Scientists suggest replacing meat with mold – it’s satisfying, healthy and environmentally friendly

Recently, you can often hear from scientists that meat consumption is harmful to our planet. Raising animals requires a lot of resources, such as fresh water, which is in short supply on Earth. In addition, this type of agriculture is associated with greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, scientists have recently been looking for an alternative to animal meat. While some are growing artificial meat from cells, others are looking for something to replace it in nature. For example, they suggest eating insect products that are rich in protein. But employees at the University of California at Berkeley have gone even further – they propose making meat from genetically modified microorganisms. Moreover, mold is best suited for these purposes.

Scientists propose replacing meat with mold — it is satisfying, healthy and environmentally friendly. Scientists propose genetically modified mold as an alternative to meat. Photo.

Scientists propose genetically modified mold as an alternative to meat

Genetically modified mushrooms — source of protein

Mushrooms are a diverse kingdom of organisms that naturally produce a huge range of nutritious and delicious proteins, fats, antioxidants, and other beneficial substances. So bioengineer and chef Vayu Hill-Maini is working to create new flavors and textures that can be achieved by modifying mushroom genes.

As Vayu Hill-Maini himself explains, he works with his team to find the best qualities of mushrooms, and also tries to discover and improve them. That is, the task of the teams is not to endow the mushrooms with some new qualities, but simply to “unlock” those that already exist and adjust them a little. To do this, the team uses a gene editing system known as CRISPR-Cas9.

Genetically modified mushrooms are a source of protein. Vayu Hill-Maini is the main author of the study. Photo.

Vayu Hill Maini — main author of the study

How a meat substitute was made from mold

In a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications, Hill-Maini and her colleagues studied the multicellular fungus Aspergillus oryzae, better known as koji mold. For centuries, this mold has been used in East Asia for food purposes, namely — for the fermentation of starch in sake, as well as in the preparation of soy sauce and miso.

Using a gene editing system, the team made changes to the genome of koji mold. The changes were aimed at increasing the mold's production of heme, an iron-based molecule. This molecule is found in various forms of life, but its highest levels are found in animal tissues. It is this that gives the meat its characteristic color and taste.

Thanks to a synthetically produced heme of plant origin, the fungi actually began to resemble meat. But the team didn’t stop there. Scientists, by modifying genes, increased the intensity of ergothioneine synthesis. It is an antioxidant that is found only in mushrooms and is beneficial for human health. Ergothioneine has a particularly positive effect on the cardiovascular system.

How a meat substitute was made from mold. On the right is genetically modified mold. Photo.

On the right is genetically modified mold

According to the study, after genetic modification, the once white fungi became pink. And after minimal processing, that is, removing excess water and grinding, the fungi could be shaped into a cutlet and fried like minced meat, which is what the authors of the work did. The result turned out quite appetizing.

The mushrooms will give the texture of meat

As mentioned above, scientists have long been working on creating artificial meat grown from cells in laboratory conditions. However, the technology has not yet become widespread. One of the problems the researchers encountered was the inability to give individual cells the structure of meat. Previously, we told you that we were able to create only artificial lard with a similar structure, but the technology is quite complex.

In this regard, modified fungi may be more promising. According to the study authors, by tuning the genes that control the texture of mold, it is possible to obtain characteristic fibers like meat. In addition, the team plans to improve the lipid composition, which will improve the taste and make the mold more like meat.

Mushrooms will give the texture of meat. Cutlet made from mold. Photo.

Cutlet made from mold

Thus, this study is only the beginning of the journey to the use of genetically modified fungi to create food products. However, it demonstrates the great potential of these organisms as a useful and easily grown source of protein. After all, even modified mold will still remain mold, which is unpretentious and grows quickly.

Follow the link to our ZEN CHANNEL. We've got lots of interesting, exciting science content for you.

Meanwhile, other scientists are paying more attention to meat substitutes in the wild. We recently told you that pythons can be an alternative to pigs and cows. Growing them requires much less resources, and they are also more environmentally friendly. In addition, they do not require any genetic modification.