Blog 06 Nov 2015 

Fish Waste to Consumer Products on a Cellular Level

Cellular biofactories can convert fish waste into consumer products such as life-saving drugs.

Campbell Tang

Campbell Tang

Principal Bioscientist

  3min Read

The Centre for Process Innovations (CPI) in Redcar, UK, are testing a highly nutritious salmon protein powder which could fuel the industrial production of an impressive array of biotech products.

Biomega, based in Bergen, Norway, currently take the leftovers from the fish processing industry to manufacture a protein powder called Salmicro® which has vast potential in industrial biotechnology. The patented process first minces up fish carcasses into a mixture somewhat akin to tinned tuna flakes, then enzymes break down the fish into oils, bones and protein/​amino acids – all of which is sold and nothing is wasted. Salmicro® itself is sold as pet food and livestock feed. However, it also has a far greater hidden potential.

Today, the great majority of our medicines and everyday products depend on the use of chemical processes and petroleum. But with dwindling resources, growing environmental interest and expanding populations, we are faced with a frantic race to seek green substitutes from more renewable and natural means.

In Norway alone, over a million tonnes of fish waste is generated every year.

Supporting this race, CPI and Biomega teamed up in an ambitious project named Marine IB, co-funded by the UK’s Technology Strategy Board now Innovate UK and Innovation Norway. Marine IB was one of the pioneering projects of the memorandum of understanding between UK and Norway that would see a partnership in the areas of industrial biotechnology and biorefining.

To understand how the Marine IB project fits into this effort, let us summarise the ways in which industrial biotechnology generates so many of our products. 

Microorganisms and animal cells are grown to make many things encompassing everything from useful chemicals, such as a variety of amino acids, bioplastic and biofuels, to high-value products including antibiotics, life-saving drugs and vaccines. Worldwide production of human insulin for diabetes treatment, for example, uses a genetically modified strain of the bacterium E.coli.

Such products come either directly from cells, or are made using enzymes taken from cells. In a way, cells are biofactories, with production lines of enzymes (workers) assembling our desired product. Deliver supplies to the factory and out come the products. We can either use the whole factory or just specific workers to produce only what we want, i.e. whole cells or isolated enzymes.

In addition to using them as tools to make biotech products, cells and enzymes can also be biotech products themselves. For instance: probiotic yogurts and non-soya veggie burgers contain microbial cells; and enzymes are used in washing detergents, food processing, cosmetics and much more.

Enzymes are used in the creation of cosmetics

All processes for growing cells, termed fermentations” and cell cultures”, require a source of nitrogen, just as your garden plants do — indeed, just as all life does. Salmicro® is a highly rich source of nitrogen – as well as containing other nutrients – and is perfect for growing the organisms which yield the diverse range of biotech products. So, can Salmicro® serve as a critical supply for these biofactories?

CPI are fermentation experts, whose business it is to develop industrial biotech processes to manufacture many of these products we need. Their role in Marine IB was to examine Salmicro® for its properties and potential for use in fermentations, trialling it against current established protein powders for the ability to support the growth of microorganisms. 

The results have been astonishing and many species grew well in tests, including biodiesel algae, a bioplastics bacterium, a bioethanol yeast, the bacterium E.coli which is important in industrial enzyme manufacture and an industrial yeast used to produce pharmaceuticals.

From fish to enzyme. E.coli,which is important in industrial enzyme manufacture, grew well in tests

In Norway alone, over a million tonnes of fish biomass deemed not fit for human consumption is generated every year. Often it is used for animal feed or fertiliser due to its nutritious content. However, this sustainable resource from the seas can help fuel the green biotech alternatives to so many chemical processes, working with chemistry in tandem, but also weaning us from our overdependence on petroleum. It is but one of numerous efforts by scientists worldwide to harness the richness in the underexploited marine environment.

The project has been an encouraging success and CPI and Biomega are looking forward to further expanding upon this exciting research as soon as possible.

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