Trent Researcher Takes Innovative Approach to the Future of Food

January 21, 2019

Master of Science student Alexandra Kuhne’s research looks to improve food security using microorganisms

Alex Kuhne

By the year 2100, the population of Earth could top 11 billion.  That’s nearly 50% more people than inhabit the planet today, meaning more mouths to feed than current agricultural techniques can produce food for –  1.2 billion more by some counts.

But food insecurity isn’t some problem of the semi-distant future that we can pass along to future generations – it’s already here. Nearly a billion people worldwide experience chronic food deprivation each year. Trent’s Alexandra Kuhne is taking an innovative approach to mitigating the harm that undernourishment causes.

Taking advantage of microscopic food producing powerhouses

“Food security is a primary challenge facing our world,” says the second year Master of Science student in Trent’s Environmental and Life Sciences graduate program.

“How do we source the protein and oil necessary to sustain our booming population? Algae seems to be our answer. Its natural ability to produce protein and oil can be applied to help feed our world. We need to take advantage of our microscopic food producing powerhouses.”

Under the supervision of Trent’s vice president of Research and Innovation Dr. Neil Emery, Ms. Kuhne is collaborating with advanced ingredient start-up Noblegen. Leveraging its unique fermentation process, the Peterborough-based company is uniquely positioned to disrupt the global ingredient market by making nutritious, sustainably-produced and highly functional proteins, carbohydrates and oils from a single source.

Noblegen calls its process “Facilitated Expression”. It influences fermentation to create multiple customized ingredients for food and nutraceuticals from a single fermented batch of microorganisms, and offers customers ‘bespoke’ ingredients to meet producers’ functional and sensory challenges.

Improving food security with microorganisms

Already, Ms. Kuhne’s partnership with the company is yielding results. Her research has provided a better understanding of the diversity of cytokinins in microalgae. The study of cytokinins, which promote cell division, has previously been focused primarily on plants.

“It’s become apparent that the microalgae have special properties that allow it to be tightly controlled and provide a range of products,” says Ms. Kuhne, who initially connected with the company through a course on infectious diseases she took in her undergraduate degree. Its instructor was Dr. Andressa Lacerda, Noblegen’s co-founder and chief development officer.

Ms. Kuhne credits Dr. Lacerda’s encouragement for fostering her curiosity for science, and like Dr. Lacerda, Ms. Kuhne believes that controlled fermentation of microorganisms could have significant benefits beyond alleviating food security.

“My research is in line with Noblegen’s mission,” says Ms. Kuhne, ”to positively impact people and the planet by redefining the future of nutrition and helping reduce ingredients’ environmental footprint. Both my research and the provisional patent application will provide the foundation to re-imagine food products harvested from a single, clean source. Through increased knowledge in cell biology and genetics, there is vast potential to improve food nutrition. By understanding how cells work, we can take advantage using a multi-disciplinary approach in animal, plant, and medical sciences to develop a whole host of applications.”