The Most Important Supply Chain in the World Isn’t what You Think, and We need to Reinvent It.
So what’s the problem, and what is “the most important supply chain in the world”?
Stay tuned to find out 😉.
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If I showed you these three products, and asked you to name something that they all had in common, what would you say?
One of the most obvious things that you’d probably say is that each of these products are made directly from animals, or maybe that each of them are sold in stores, or maybe you’d get really granular and say that these are all made of atoms. You wouldn’t be wrong.
But then, if I added some more products into here besides some milk, fur, and eggs, like textiles, makeup, boats, a plane, paper, etc. etc., it might get a little more difficult to determine something that makes all of these similar.
Now we have decorations, leather, meat, eggs, milk, fur, paper, seafood, makeup, skincare products, and more. What do all of these things have in common now? They’re not all made from animals, they’re not all used in the same way, they’re not necessarily connected to some action that relates them all, or puts them under a generalized category.
I guess you could say that they’re objects, all made from atoms, or that they’re really nicely designed photos (thanks CAS! 😎), or that they’re all manufactured products.
And you wouldn’t be wrong.
In fact, manufacturing was one of the important things that I was hinting at.
Manufacturing is the system of production that humanity relies on to make its products, and the systems that are used to build the foundations of modern civilization.
Manufacturing is what allows us to travel, make new things, eat, drink water, use electricity, have houses, go on boats, write, and more.
That’s a lot that manufacturing does for us.
But what’s at the heart of manufacturing that brings all of the industries it creates together?
If we look a bit deeper into the thing that makes food food, shoes shoes, clothing clothing, paper paper, makeup makeup, we find that there’s one commonality between all of these things.
Protein is the foundation of manufacturing, which is the backbone of humanity.
What is protein?
The science of protein is one that’s pretty complex, but can easily be broken down. Literally.
Protein is a structural nutrients that is synthesized by a whole bunch of organisms in the cell. A structure called the ribosome builds it from these amino acids (they’re just organic compounds), and places them into chains held together by this force called a peptide. The chains of amino acids are polypeptides. One polypeptide or multiple fused polypeptides make a protein.
Then the protein is processed and packaged by the Golgi Apparatus, and sent off to go do amazing things for our bodies. In between the steps, there are also some biochemical processes that help to ensure the structural integrity of the protein, so on and so forth. Once we have the protein sent off, they help to build life.
But why is protein so versatile?
Because of math. If we look at amino acids, there are 20 types (don’t bother trying to memorize these or their names — unless you’re taking AP Chem/Bio 😭, or you’re a scientist).
So therefore, you might think that there are about 400 different proteins that we can make/are in the body. This time, unfortunately, you’d be wrong.
The human body contains about 80,000 to 400,000 different proteins. This is because of order. We can have these amino acids paired and placed in so many different orientations, and the amount of permutations that yields is much higher than the generally expected number.
And because there are so many different proteins, there are so many different functions. Not to mention how complex proteins are in their morphology (their structure and shape), which varies from protein to protein.
Look and their structure, we find that a protein has 4 main structures that inform its 3D shape!
- We start with the primary structure. This is just the polypeptide chain.
- Then, the hydrogen bonding of the polypeptide forms the new patterns of the pleated sheet and the alpha helix, and constitutes a bunch of bonds that form the 2D structural coil and plate patterns. This is called the secondary structure.
- After processing these together, the tertiary structure is formed, and we can start to observe this 3D polypeptide structure, and a very sprawled out, spaghetti-like structure in protein imaging.
- Then finally, we get the quaternary structure, or the 3D protein itself, fully formed and ready to be used to make products, give us nutrients, and do practically everything for us and our current manufacturing system.
And this entire process is informed by genetics.
Our genes code for the instructions telling organisms, like humans, to produce certain proteins in the body. For example, the kappa-casein gene in milk-making bovines is responsible for creating the protein casein, which is one of the most important proteins in milk.
But the reason why we’re creating so many problems for ourselves as a human race is because of the protein supply chain.
The Protein Supply Chain Problem
The protein supply chain describes the conglomeration of the different industries reliant on protein, and the current production system used to make protein.
To be honest, the protein supply chain and current protein production is really, really simple: its killing organisms and then siphoning the protein circulating all throughout their biological systems. Aside from killing animals, it has long been believed that there’s no conceivable way to produce protein or no possible alternative that has the same effects and versatility as protein. Only one of those two assumptions are correct.
The sad thing is that what’s behind our current manufacturing system and the protein supply chain — which mind you, is the primary infrastructure that has built up society for years, and allowed us to do literally everything — is 91.6% of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s right. Over 9/10ths of greenhouse gas and climate change is thanks to protein.
And one of the biggest things you may think of as an avid researcher, normal human being, or anything in between or outside the generalization of the types of people that read my articles, is probably about CO2, methane, and hydrogen. That’s what comes to mind when I talk about greenhouse gas.
But what I’m currently referring to is this:
Our near term consequences. This is what our life looks like right now. Not 50 years from now, not 100 years from now, but currently.
It’s interesting how because glaciers aren’t melting, factories aren’t emitting smoke, and El Niños aren’t happening in our backyards every day, we start to detach ourselves from a really serious issue.
A really contemporary and immediately problem with no immediate solution. That’s a recipe for disaster.
What’s interesting, though, is that the protein supply chain ought not to think of climate change as a problem, but rather as an outcome. You might have heard about this school of thinking before, but it’s truly profound. Asking the “why” behind all of the outcomes we’re seeing leads us to most important revelation:
It’s not that we’re creating protein that’s the root cause of climate change. It’s how we’re creating protein that’s the problem.
And this is why I dare to say that the current protein supply chain stinks. It’s revolutionary, indispensable, and pretty awesome, but its not good. Current manufacturing is not good.
One of the mental models you can use is to think forward. Think about what we’ll look back on in fifty years, and say “wow, that was pretty dumb”, or think about the fact that we’re creating a future for the 9–11+ billion people in 2050 that will be littered with acidic oceans and cloudy skies. Think about the fact that protein production is about 5% efficient, and takes up so much land, water, and food that just to feed the population of 2050 with current agricultural protein production, we would need about 7 planet earths…
If you don’t believe me and you don’t want to imagine, the proof is very-much-so in the pudding.
Because of our current pandemic situation, manufacturing has drastically slowed down. For the first time in years the notoriously cloudy Hollywood sign has become visible again in clear skies.
All because of under a year of less, not even none, but less manufacturing.
But, obviously, we don’t want to stay in a pandemic, and it’s clearly not even the best overall course of action in slowing down and ultimately stopping the big bad that is global warming.
So, that forces us to either 1.) create or find another nutrient or molecule that has the same promise and use that protein does, or 2.) create a new way to produce proteins.
I can tell you already that one is probably either never going to happen, or not for another 1000000 years. But, 2 is definitely possible, and its currently happening right now, thanks to companies like these:
These awesome companies each play a larger role in creating the future of the protein supply chain, specifically in food.
And it all starts with a fungus.
We begin by *inexpensively* getting a bunch of yeast. Quite a simple step if I do say so myself.
Then, we harmlessly prick out the gene from a cow or from the animal with the desired genes that produce a certain protein, and inject them into the yeast using a vector, which is a virus or a plasmid (circular DNA bundle) that communicates a new genetic code to other DNA containing structures, like chromosomes.
You can think of it as a car salesman that drives a car around and gets a whole bunch of other car-owners to buy cars.
Through the process of transformation and recombination, the new genetic code is adapted throughout the yeast. Then, we cause the yeast to ferment.
Now, fermentation is a really important process that we need to talk about.
There are two main types of fermentation: lactic acid and alcoholic/ethanol (the yeast does alcoholic).
Fermentation begins with glycolysis, except when we make pyruvate this time, there’s no extracellular matrix, or Kreb’s Cycle, or oxidation, or any of that jazz you may have learned vaguely about in 4th grade science (and later on). Instead it goes through a different pathway system which ultimately creates NAD+ from the NADH in glycolysis, and this regeneration allows for glycolysis to reoccur.
So, alcohol 🍾.
It looks like this:
We’re producing the ethyl alchol! So we go through glycolysis, then we use the 2 pyruvate to create 2 acetaldehyde (a type of compound), which releases carbon dioxides. Then, the 2 acetaldehydes are converted through NADH to two ethanol alcoholic compounds, which then oxidizes the NADH and turns it to NAD+, which is used to power glycolysis again. Now, let’s apply this to dairy.
Basically, fermentation is the fundamental biological process of getting an organic input and creating a completely different organic output.
If the yeast then contains the code to produce proteins after the new genetic code is activated, guess what happens at the end of fermentation? You get the protein.
And because genes, on average, code for about 10–20 different proteins at once, we get some pretty great stuff (a.k.a different protein) out of the yeast!
After we get the protein, its purified and refined so that it can be only raw protein, and then ground, infused, and added to other molecules and products like water and lipids to produce creams, milk, makeup, and more.
Out of this technology arises an entire list FAQs:
What is this?
It’s acellular agriculture through microorganisms; using small things to produce non cell products, like proteins.
Can gene-edited yeast fermentation produce any protein?
No. Not even close.
Can anything? How do we account for all of the proteins we may need?
We can use other microorganisms, like insect cells!
Animals are practically not involved, and we can cut down 91.5% by over 70% once this is adopted globalwide. Oh, and you won’t be munching on or wearing or decorating with antibiotics, growth hormones, or an actual horn of of a bull.
So why haven’t we scaled? Is it too slow? How do we scale?
Well, yeast unfortunately has a life-cycle, and we can use it forever, meaning we have to replenish the yeast, and we aren’t getting as much protein as we need out of the yeast to feed the world. Current efforts right now are focusing on how we can optimize this new protein supply chain production method (#mouthful).
Fermentation isn’t really that slow actually. It builds up lactic acid in our bodies in minutes of not receiving enough oxygen. The problem of acellular agriculture isn’t really how fast, it’s how much we get out of the yeast, or any microorganism we’re using to produce the proteins, and the form factor of production.
That’s why, to scale, we need bioreactors, commonly known in this case as fermentation vessels. They’ll basically do this:
You can think of them as these babysitters to the yeast. Except instead of making sure the baby is fed and gets to play, they make sure that the yeast baby has good CO2 and oxygen levels, has the necessary factors and nutrients, is fermenting, and is producing protein (get yourself a babysitter that can do this!). Therefore, the future of supply chain will less like an assembly line and slaughterhouse, and more like a beer brewery, where we have these 20 liter stainless steel tanks constantly allowing yeast to ferment and give us proteins that will be used in all of these industries:
Everything from painting to food to aviation will benefit from a better leveraged and less environmentally and animal-ly detrimental production system for protein.
Recap and Final Thoughts
This 👆is what the reinvention of the most important supply chain in the world looks like. Except, we’re moving away from Petri dishes, and with funding, materials, support, and a globalwide shift, we’re beginning to create and render factories like this:
, where we have these beautiful and open technological fermentation and cell-growing bioreactors and packaging systems that quickly andsustainably pump out the meat. Also notice the verdant landscape beyond the windows and the clear skies. That’s the look we’re going for.
Not only is this an example of an altruistic mission for technology, but its a huge ROI, both economically and environmentally. This is why I urge you all to support the people all around the world and companies building out these systems, advocating for them, working on projects in them, and educating others about them.
Whether, you want to contribute by supporting and clapping this article, sharing it, investing, writing, telling other people about it, or just enjoying the technology, any and all support is important.
Even with its limitations, I believe that acellular agriculture has huge implications and possibilities of the future.
Its up to us to work on it, and see what those are.
Hey, hey! My name’s Okezue, and I’m super interesting in the intersection between technology and problem-solving, and how it can impact huge industries. I’m currently focusing my efforts in alternative protein and artificial intelligence, working with some of the leading companies as an advisor, project manager, and interning and building for some awesome startups. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me with anything either. If you want to hear more from me, I post a newsletter every month, speak at events, do research and projects, YouTube, I have a podcast called VZIN, and I post here quite often, so follow me if you want to get notified on these articles!