How a Microbe From Yellowstone’s Hot Springs Could Help Feed the World

Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park

Minerals and algae form patterns in the scalding hot water at Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park’s Midway Geyser Basin. Yellowstone National Park has more than 10,000 thermal features, making it the largest concentration of active geysers in the world.
George Rose/Getty Images

In 2009, NASA researcher Mark Kozubal stooped down by the side of a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. On the harsh acidic water, he could see that a microbe was thriving: A mat of algae had formed on the surface. Carefully taking a spatula, he scooped up a fingernail-sized piece of the algal mat and placed it into a sterile tube.

Kozubal was leading a team of scientists who had been tasked with finding life in this extreme environment filled with steam vents and hot springs. It was research that could prove invaluable for space missions to the moons of Saturn or to Mars. But little did Kozubal know, the microbe he was carrying would be the genesis of one of the world’s most innovative food companies on Earth.

This wasn’t the first time a miracle microbe had been found at Yellowstone. In 1966, scientists found the heat-loving bug Thermus aquaticus that became the foundation of PCR tests. An enzyme from the robust bug can handle the thermal cycles of heating and cooling used in the process of copying DNA.

Kozubal finished his doctorate at Montana State University in 2010, but he didn’t forget about the microbe. He continued to study it. At first, he thought this extremophile could become the source of a new biodiesel, but as gas was so cheap in the United States at that time, it would have been hard to be competitive. The microbe came from the fungus family, so Thomas Jonas, a former president of a packaging company with an interest in science, who Kozubal met through friends, suggested they turn their focus to food.

“I said, ‘This is a pretty extraordinary microorganism. Let’s think big about what this can be,’” Jonas says. “Looking at the big problems in the world, energy is one of them, but food is another.”

How a Microbe From Yellowstone's Hot Springs Could Help Feed the World

Depending on how they treated it, the mat of protein could become meatless burgers, dairy substitutes or protein powders. Ultimately, they made meatless breakfast patties.

Nature’s Fynd

In May 2018, they launched the food company Nature’s Fynd in Chicago, with the microbe Fusarium str. Yellowstonensis (or Fy) as their secret weapon. It took them 18 months before they were able to create anything that looked like a food.

The duo worked with the original microbe that Kozubal found in Yellowstone. They stored the microbe at minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit in three different locations, should one refrigerator fail. They were acutely aware of its uniqueness.

As Sam Barkley, chief development officer for Yellowstone Forever, the park’s official nonprofit partner, notes, Yellowstone National Park has more than 10,000 thermal features, making it the largest concentration of active geysers in the world. “What’s interesting about this organism is we haven’t found it in any other springs,” says Jonas. “We didn’t even find it upstream or downstream from where Mark found it. The chemistry changes within a few meters.”

While Kozubal and Jonas had big plans, the pair started small. They paid attention to how the organism behaved in nature and, in a small lab in a co-working space at the University of Chicago, invented at technique they call “liquid-air surface fermentation” to replicate it.

The scientists took a cell of the fungus, placed it in water and fed it sugar to help grow and multiply, which it did within a matter of hours. They then boosted the process by placing it in a bioreactor, and once they had enough, they poured it into catering trays with more water, sugar and salts. The acidic environment in the tray helped the microbe thrive but kept other bacteria at bay. Within three days, the organism turned into a mat of complete protein, meaning it featured all nine essential amino acids needed for human nutrition. Each tray was the equivalent in protein to 25 chickens.

How a Microbe From Yellowstone's Hot Springs Could Help Feed the World

They also found that if they blended Fy with water, it could become a milk and the base for a cream cheese.

Nature’s Fynd

The Nature’s Fynd team found that Fy was adaptable. Depending on how they treated it, the mat of protein could become meatless burgers, dairy substitutes or protein powders. If they chopped it up and added some natural flavoring, it could resemble a meat patty, and if they blended it with water, it could become a milk alternative and the base for a non-dairy cream cheese.

New York City-based dietitian Elizabeth Gunner says it’s unusual for a plant-based protein to contain so many amino acids. “A lot of plant-based proteins don’t contain all nine essential amino acids. You typically have to mix one plant food with another to create a ‘complete protein,’ such as mixing rice with beans.”

When the startup launched its first products in February 2021, Kozubal and Jones knew they wanted Nature’s Fynd to be a one-stop shop. So they started with a Fy Breakfast Bundle, which included dairy-free cream cheese and meatless breakfast patties. “Some people would say that’s a little crazy that you would try to do both, but the reality is no different from what the cow has been doing for a pretty long time,” Jonas says. The bundle was available on their website for $14.99, shipping to 48 states. They have since grown to sell their products at over 1,000 stores across the United States, including Whole Foods.

When Nature’s Fynd finally opened its full factory in the spring of 2021, it was clear this was a sea change. The historic Union Stockyards on Chicago’s South Side, a former slaughterhouse, was now a 35,000-square-foot facility churning out an innovative vegan protein.

What is groundbreaking about the protein is its simplicity. They can grow Fy, a form of mycelium, in low-tech metal catering trays, and making it uses less land and water and releases less greenhouse gas emissions than beef production does, says Jonas. A January 2024 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, reported that novel foods such as mycelium yielded substantial reductions in environmental pressures due to land use.

The startup founders also proved that this microbe could be used in fine dining when chef Eric Ripert served diners vegan desserts made with Fy at his three-Michelin-star restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City.

“I was very impressed by the possibilities and versatility of what the product could offer,” says Ripert, who, as a culinary advisor to Nature’s Fynd, developed a Fy-filled squash blossom cheesecake and apricot sorbet chamomile ice cream. “It could help the future of food in many ways, taking sustainability into account.”

@dccancook

Food Review: Vegan Breakfast Patties These were really good. I hope you try them out. #food #foodie #breakfast #review #foodreview #vegan #veganfood #sandwich #letscook #blacktiktok #plantbased #meatless #eating @Nature’s Fynd

♬ original sound – KVSIDI

In a review of the startup’s breakfast patties on TikTok, vegan cook Dominique Henderson put the meat substitute in a sandwich with tofu scramble and chia jam. “The flavor didn’t pick up right away, but as you chew it, it really is good,” she says in her video.

Jonas acknowledges that Fy doesn’t come cheap, though. “We are producing it in only one factory in the world, and it’s expensive, as there is a limited amount available,” he says. But the company doesn’t rely on filler to cut costs. “We make sure that with every product we launch, Fy is the No. 1 ingredient.” (At a downtown Chicago Whole Foods, a package of six Nature’s Fynd breakfast patties is priced at $5.29, around twice the cost per ounce of a pork equivalent.)

Other companies are also exploring what microbes can do to help the food industry. Finnish company Solar Foods took a microbe from a beach in Finland to create its protein-packed powder Solein. It first served the powder to diners in Singapore in May 2023 in the form of ice cream and pasta. Meanwhile, Austrian biotech company Arkeon is using its namesake microbe to create protein that will be sold to food companies to use in sports drinks, protein bars and plant-based dishes.

How a Microbe From Yellowstone's Hot Springs Could Help Feed the World

Finnish company Solar Foods took a microbe from a beach in Finland to create its protein-packed powder Solein.

Solar Foods

Kozubal and Jonas believe that Fy protein can be created anywhere and decided to put that theory to the test. In July 2022, the microbe was rocketed to the International Space Station to see if astronauts could grow the protein in microgravity. With just a shoebox-sized bioreactor, the team was successful. Nature’s Fynd was also, alongside Solar Foods, a finalist in NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge, a competition that seeks tasty, nutritious food for long-duration space missions.

Angela Herblet, lead manager for the Deep Space Food Challenge, says that until then NASA had overlooked fungi as a potential food. “That was kind of a gap for our plant lab at NASA,” she says. “They hadn’t really been looking in that area, so it educated us not just on the potential for mushroom-based approaches, but really opened everybody’s eyes to all of the different potential approaches.”

For NASA, it’s also important that the novel food can be enjoyed on Earth. It wants to see that the technology can continue to develop until the time comes for it to be used in space.

Seeing how far that this technology could be pushed was also what attracted funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As a population explosion is poised to happen around the equator, where the effects of climate change will be harshest, a protein that grows in extreme environments could be critical. Now Nature’s Fynd is not just looking at how it can produce Fy for humans, but it is also exploring how the microbe can be used elsewhere in the traditional food cycle. It is attempting to develop nutritious agricultural feedstock for small farmers in Africa using Fy, so they don’t have to rely solely on growing crops to feed their cattle.

How a Microbe From Yellowstone's Hot Springs Could Help Feed the World

In January 2024, Nature’s Fynd released the first world’s first fungi-based yogurt.

Nature’s Fynd

In the meantime, Nature’s Fynd has also continued to expand its product lines in supermarkets. In January 2024, it released the first world’s first fungi-based yogurt, which is available at Whole Foods Market and beyond.

While the team hasn’t had to return to Yellowstone to source more of the microbe, Nature’s Fynd has remained connected to the park. Using its staff’s knowledge of microbes, the company is building tools to help track and monitor pathogens that target mammals and aquatic life. It has also helped create a database to monitor the changes in the genetic diversity of pathogens across the landscape to help protect animals such as bison, elk and wolves in the park.

As an entrepreneur, Jonas says, you keep looking forward. “Yesterday is kind of a blur,” he says. “The thing that really excites you is building something for tomorrow.”

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