BioLigna – Wood to food

 AGMARDT provided Agribusiness Innovation Grant (AIG) funds to kick-start testing to identify the potential of food ingredient production, via fermentable sugars derived from wood residue.

“AGMARDT plays a wide-ranging role in the eco-system, but I particularly appreciate its early-stage funding in the ideation space,” says BioLigna project manager Amos Palfreyman.

“So many great opportunities never get underway because there is no-one willing to step up and provide grants for experimentation and incubation, but AGMARDT does that.”

AGMARDT AIG funding enabled BioLigna to achieve proof of concept (POC) for Wood to Food, a unique approach to producing a high-value food grade ingredient using wood residue converted to sugars as a feedstock.

The project successfully identified strains of lactic acid bacteria with potential to be grown in this way. Options now being explored include using these in in production of specialist ingredients such as low-calorie sweeteners for use in plant-based food products.

Amos is passionate about food sustainability. He is the former business development manager, and now advisor for emerging proteins for FoodHQ. The world class food, science and innovation hub is a collaboration between internationally-recognised New Zealand companies, councils and research and educational institutions. He is also a co-founder and CEO of the Miruku foodtech company, which is developing alternative dairy proteins technology.

The BioLigna project had its origins in discussions at FoodHQ around ‘what does New Zealand’s role look like in the future of plant-based food’?

“When we look at ingredients of plant-based foods, beyond plant proteins they require ingredients not so well-known in the food industry,” says Amos. “For instance, sweeteners to address the bitter taste some plant foods have. Manufacturers don’t want to add sugar or sucrose because of the health aspect.

“A lot of the industry is importing many ingredients, such as sweeteners and plant-based proteins and these are being repackaged in ‘made in NZ’ products and sold here or exported. As more of these products are needed, more transparency in the supply chain will be required.

“We wanted to look at supporting plant-based food producers with natural ingredients from New Zealand – to look at what we have, including our unique botanicals, and what we can access and leverage. Then we could have a compelling story to tell about the most natural plant-based food, all produced here in New Zealand.”

Further inspiration came from a research document on bacteria being used to ferment wood-derived sugars into biofuel.

“The idea was sound but ultimately the economics had not stacked up for that,” says Amos. “But I thought, ‘could wood seconds be used to create high value feedstock for food-grade bacteria’? Especially as a lot of biomass is not being fully-utilised.”

The team worked with Crown Research Institute Scion, which had developed a proprietary technology to convert wood residues to fermentable sugars. Laboratory testing was provided through Massey University and AgResearch.

“We have been exploring a few different options and the best option is specialist health food ingredients such as low calorie sweeteners to use in formulas in the fast growing plant-based market,” says Amos. “There is also potential for probiotic fibre-based ingredients with these sweeteners, so you also get healthy gut microbiome.”

The AIG funding included covering travel costs for a post-graduate to undertake work on the project, Scion sample processing, lab hire and microbial materials costs.

“It helped enable testing of multiple strains of lactobacillus to find those that most enjoyed the ‘dinner’ we were providing,” says Amos.

BioLigna will now work with Scion and AgResearch to explore the techno-economic feasibility of specific ingredients and use non-GMO accelerated evolution platform to enhance bacterial strains to  improve growth and efficiency while creating a patentable microbial strain.

“Through the laboratory trial we have identified over a dozen strains that most efficiently used the wood sugar components to ferment single cell proteins and grew fastest,” says Amos.  “We now need to identify a number of targets in terms of high value low calorie sweeteners – xylitol, erythritol and mannitol for instance – to see which we can produce most efficiently.”