Precision Fermentation: An Overview

Q & A with Mr. Jiancheng Qi

Bioresource and Food Processing Research Unit Lead & Fermentation Engineer, Agri-Food Discovery Place‍

Industry publications have been reporting that an increasing number of companies have begun using “precision fermentation” to produce a variety of high-value food ingredients, nutraceuticals, personal care products, and more.  We’ve asked Mr. Jiancheng Qi, Bioresource and Food Processing Research Unit Lead & Fermentation Engineer, Agri-Food Discovery Place at the University of Alberta, to answer a few questions and provide some insight on this exciting, emerging biotechnology.

KeyLeaf: What is precision fermentation?

Mr. Qi: It is my understanding that precision fermentation is a neologism initially used by the food industry to describe the precisely controlled fermentation process of using genetically engineered microorganisms to create biologically identical animal proteins for animal-free meat, dairy, and eggs, and to differentiate advanced biosynthetic technology from the traditional food fermentation process.  

As the term precision fermentation is rapidly gaining recognition, it has also become a synonym of industrial fermentation technology or biosynthetic technology. The industrial fermentation is the process by using microorganisms to make value-added products, including biomass, extracellular metabolites, intracellular components and transformation of substrate, based on suitable microorganism strains, fully understood biosynthetic pathway, optimized nutrients composition, and specified growth conditions. The industrial fermentation technology has been around for many decades and the fermentation industry has long been a well-established industry sector making numerous essential or important products such as antibiotics, vitamins, enzymes, proteins, amino acids, organic acids, alcohols, sugar alcohols, natural colors, sweeteners, flavors, gums, omega-3 PUFA, probiotics, bio pesticides, bio fertilizers, biofilms, biofuels, cannabinoids, etc.  


KeyLeaf: What are a few high-value products that are now being routinely produced using precision fermentation?

Mr. Qi - Antibiotics


           -Probiotics and Cultures

           -Active yeast or Baker’s yeast

           -Enzymes, such as amylase, cellulase, xylanase, pectinase, protease, lipase


           -Amino acids, such as lysine, monosodium glutamate

           -Organic acids, such as citric acid, lactic acid, acetic acid

           -PUFA, such as DHA, EPA

           -Vitamins, such as beta-carotene, vitamin B12, vitamin B2

           -Natural color, such as Monascus color

           -Sugar alcohols, such as xylitol, erythritol

           -Gums, such as xanthan gum, Gellan gum


           -Acetone and butanol



KeyLeaf: Producing a high-value product using precision fermentation has been described as “only half the processing battle”. The other half of the battle is properly extracting and refining the high-value compound that’s been created by the fermentation process. Why is proper “downstream processing” crucial for producing a fermented product that properly functions in the application for which it was designed?  

Mr. Qi: Yes, fermentation process is described as the “upstream process” in the fermentation industry, which is only half the processing line. The broth obtained after fermentation process is typically a mixture of water, biomass, extracellular metabolites, residue sugars and other un-fermentable components, containing targeted valuable bio products that are either the biomass, extracellular metabolites, intracellular components or all of them. Those biological products need to be extracted and purified through a downstream process in order to obtain finished products that meet the quality specs.

Downstream processing involves a series of unit operations of separation, extraction, purification and dehydration based on chemical and biochemical engineering technologies, as well as the physicochemical properties of the desirable bio products. Every bioproduct obtained from the fermentation process is unique; therefore, biochemical, chemical and mechanical scientists and engineers must be work together to test, design and optimize the downstream processing that is with high efficiency, cost effective, and fit for product quality for the market.  


KeyLeaf:  What impact do you predict that precision fermentation will have on these industries: Food & Beverage; Nutritional supplement; Pharmaceutical; Medical; Cosmetics; and other industries/sectors? 

Mr. Qi: I think precision fermentation will have an impact on all sectors above. However, we may expect more companies in the Food & Beverage, Nutritional supplement, and Pharmaceutical sectors start to adapt precision fermentation for new products and market.  


KeyLeaf: What impact do you envision that precision fermentation will have on the environment, short term and long term?

Mr. Qi: I agree that precision fermentation will have a long-term positive impact on the environment by reducing agriculture input, and creating sustainable food, nutrition and consumer products. It is important to realize that some new commercial fermentation plants could also create pollutants such as wastewater and greenhouse gas emissions, which must be properly treated to protect the environment in the short-term.


KeyLeaf:  Are you aware of any major food companies (like DuPont or DSM) developing fermentation-derived product lines?

Mr. Qi: Yes, I’m aware that many major food companies such as DuPont, DSM, BASF, Cargill and many others, either already have or are developing fermentation-derived product lines. For example, fermentation or biotechnology is a major platform at DSM in making different food and nutritional ingredients including omega-3 DHA, cultures, probiotics, enzymes, gums, dairy-like proteins, sweeteners.  


KeyLeaf: What other thoughts or observations do you have concerning precision fermentation?

Mr. Qi: The development and commercialization of a high value new product through precision fermentation technology can be very difficult and requires long-term commitments and high investments. I am afraid some companies or entrepreneurs who are excited about the potentials of precision fermentation might have underestimated or overlooked the challenges.      


KeyLeaf: Thank you, Mr. Qi




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