Q&A

A word about incredibly edible miniature slaves

November 3 1980
Q&A

A word about incredibly edible miniature slaves

November 3 1980

A word about incredibly edible miniature slaves

Q&A

‘We get a bug ...

Last July, scientists came from all over the world for a conference at the University of Western Ontario in London on the unlikely subject of fermentation. The process of fermentation, best known for its role in brewing beer and manufacturing antibiotics, is now regarded by scientists as a possible solution to world food shortages, the energy crisis and pollution. Leading the conference was Prof. Murray Moo-Young of the University of Waterloo, Ont. He and his colleagues report that the phenomenal progress of microbiology and genetics has led to an exciting breakthrough: it is now possible to develop unique organisms which perform special tasks, and these tiny “slaves”may eventually even replace the technology of today.

Recently Moo-Young engineered a process that can convert tons of sludgy pulp-and-paper waste into protein-rich food in mere hours. Weyerhaeuser, the U.S. company that is one of the world's largest pulp and paper concerns, snapped up the North American licence to Moo-Young's process when a Canadian firm turned it down. The Yugoslavian

government leased the rights to the process to convert crop residues in Eastern Europe.

Born in Jamaica, Moo-Young was educated in England, and in his 10 years at Waterloo has led the university into the biochemical engineering big leagues. As a consultant to International Telephone & Telegraph Corp. (ITT) and the United Nations, MooYoung has an international reputation as a man with the know-how to translate laboratory discoveries into commercial ventures. He was interviewed for Maclean’s by free-lance writer Alan Mayer.

Maclean’s:.Exactly what is a microbe and what part does it play in biotechnology ? Moo-Young: By definition a microbe is a living organism that you cannot see with the naked eye—bacteria, yeasts and so on. But, you must understand, biotechnology is an ill-defined field. It’s a catchword, but basically it deals with the use of living cells, especially microbes, to produce valuable goods such as antibiotics or animal feed or a broad

category of services. An example is the way most municipalities treat waste. They’re using microbes to get reasonably clean water.

Maclean’s: What is a “super-bug?" Moo-Young: Microbiologists have now started tinkering with the microbe itself. If we start gene-splicing, organism A could become organism B. Not completely different, but changed to make sure this bug will make penicillin, for example, two, three, four times faster than the original bug could.

Maclean’s: Isn't there a danger in genetic manipulation? An Andromeda strain scenario, for example, where through bad luck some new bug escapes from a test tube into the open air and turns out to be harmful.

Moo-Young: It’s definitely possible

something can go wrong in genetic engineering, but the probability is not as high as we originally thought. The National Institute for Health in the U.S. has backed down considerably from the regulations they initially set up for recombinant DNA work. The normal safeguards microbiologists take in respect to naturally occurring organisms are the same you’d take for genetically engineered bugs.

Maclean’s: VThat is the thrust of your research?

Moo-Young: My research team is

looking at creating the proper environ-

... and make it work ...

ment for the bug. We get a bug and make it work like a little factory. Maclean’s: What was your break-

through at Waterloo?

Moo-Young:We’re converting agricultural and forestry residues into proteinenriched products which can be used as animal feed and in some countries as

human food as well. The average pulp and paper mill produces 10 to 15 tons of sludge a day and that’s a nuisance that has to be buried in landfills. After we convert it in our pilot plant, you end up with a massive amount of protein-rich microorganisms. We have a food that smells and tastes good and we have been able to produce enough of it that the economics look right.

Maclean’s: How much of that waste is turned into protein concentrate? Moo-Young: You could take 100 tons of residue and turn it into 75 tons of protein product in four hours.

Maclean’s: Four hours! Then this process could be used in times of famine or war?

Moo-Young: It’s not a new concept. During the Second World War, that’s the type of protein Germany mass-produced by fermentation to sustain their army.

Maclean’s: What does the food taste like?

Moo-Young: It has a mushroomy smell and tastes a little like malt. About 30 to 40 per cent is protein and the rest is starch, vitamins and other goodies we dry into granules, powder or flakes that can replace meat, eggs or soy meal. Maclean’s: Doesn't this protein contain nucleic acids which people find difficult to digest?

Moo-Young: It’s true nucleic acid compo-

nents are higher in microbes than some other protein products and can cause gout if eaten in large amounts. But it’s not a total food. It’s a food ingredient. Initially, it’s being promoted for Canadian use as animal feed to replace or supplement soy meal and fish meal—of which, by the way, we import a lot. Maclean’s: Why didn’t the Canadian companies buy the rights to your process?

Moo-Young: They wanted to make more than 40-per-cent profit. Any new venture has an element of risk to it, so they’re protecting themselves. It’s the sad story told so frequently in Canada that we have to import a technology from abroad when in point of fact we developed it here.

Maclean’s: In a report prepared for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, science writer Pierre Sormany suggests that biotechnology will revolutionize life in the same way microelectronics has. Do you agree?

Moo-Young: We really don’t have this revolution everyone’s talking about. We’re predicting it will come, but I’m a bit concerned that the expectations for biotechnology may have been blown out of proportion. Biotechnology may not be the solution to a lot of the world’s problems.

Maclean’s: Let’s take the highly touted “gasohol” as an example. How close is

... like a little factory’

Canada to producing enough alcohol for fuel?

Moo-Young: The capability of producing a lot of alcohol for gasohol use in Canada is fantastic because Canada is blessed with a lot of natural materials which can be fermented. But what is theoretically feasible is often economi-

cally impossible. Right now there is no known process that could produce fuel alcohol economically. The rate of conversion is too slow. If OPEC doubled the price of petroleum tomorrow, it would take at least five years to make gasohol competitive.

Maclean’s: But isn’t gasohol a reality now in countries like the U.S. and Brazil, which claims to meet 20 per cent of its fuel needs with it?

Moo-Young: Sure, gasohol is a reality. In Nebraska you can drive into a gas station and buy fuel alcohol as a blend, but it’s subsidized almost 100 per cent by the federal government. The big difference is in the economic reality. It shouldn’t make any sense for Brazil to make gasohol either. But Brazil hasn’t enough hard currency to pay for petroleum. We do. One major thing could change the picture. If the microbiologists can come up with genetically engineered bugs that really improve the rate of production of alcohol from fermentation, then this could be the breakthrough we’re waiting for.

Maclean’s: Have you heard the slogan, “Anything a chemist can do, a bug can do”?

Moo-Young: The converse of that expression is... .“If nature in the process of evolution has not produced a bug that can do a certain job, man will have a difficult time to make one better.”^