Unlocking Fungal Frontiers: Revolutionizing the Food Industry with Genetic Engineering

A gene-edited fungal culture from Vayu Hill-Maini's research, seen on a dinner plate.

(Credit: Marilyn Sargent/Berkeley Lab)

by | Mar 19, 2024

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In the realm of sustainable food solutions, the exploration of fungi as a source of innovative foods is setting a new precedent. The biotechnology sphere is undergoing a transformative phase, notably with the advent of animal-free dairy products and vegetarian meat substitutes. Scientists are now exploring the wide variety of proteins, fats, antioxidants, and flavors that fungi can produce. This research could lead to the development of “smart foods” that are good for both people’s health and the environment.

Harnessing the Power of Fungi Through Genetic Engineering

At the forefront of this revolution is Chef-turned-bioengineer Vayu Hill-Maini, associated with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Biosciences Area. Hill-Maini’s work in the laboratory of Jay Keasling, a bioengineering expert at the University of California, Berkeley, leverages advances in genetic engineering to modify the genes present in fungi, unlocking new possibilities for food innovation. Their recent research, published in Nature Communications, showcases the manipulation of Aspergillus oryzae, known as koji mold, which is traditionally used in East Asia for fermenting staples like sake and miso. By employing the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing system, Hill-Maini and team have paved the way to enhance the mold’s production of essential molecules like heme and ergothioneine, which results in fungi-based foods that mimic the taste and texture of meat while being rich in antioxidants.

This leap in synthetic biology produces desirable food alternatives and demonstrates the potential of fungi as a sustainable and efficient protein source. The development of a toolkit for koji mold exemplifies a significant advancement in the ability to harness multicellular fungi, historically a challenge due to their complex genomes and adaptations.

Business Implications and the Future of Food

The implications for the food industry are vast. This innovative approach to food production has the potential to redefine food manufacturing, offering businesses a sustainable alternative to traditional meat products. The ability to create fungi-based foods that closely replicate the taste and texture of meat, without the environmental footprint, opens up new avenues for food companies to explore, particularly in the face of rising consumer demand for sustainable and ethical food choices.

The collaboration between Hill-Maini and chefs from the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Alchemist in Copenhagen hints at the culinary potential of fungi beyond mere meat substitutes. The creation of a striking, orange-colored porridge utilizing the fungus Neurospora intermedia underscores the versatility of fungi in producing not only protein-rich foods but also innovative culinary experiences.

Navigating the Path Towards Food Security

As the world grapples with the challenges of food scarcity and the environmental impact of traditional food production methods, the work of Hill-Maini and colleagues showcases the potential of fungi to serve as a sustainable food source and also highlights the role of synthetic biology in addressing critical global issues.


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