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Developing Chicken-Free Egg Whites

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Cellular agriculture is a method of producing animal-derived products without the need for animals, which could be better for the environment than conventional farming. It has been used to produce “meat” and human milk from cell culture, with cell-cultured seafood potentially being next on the menu. As well as cell culture methods, precision fermentation can be used to produce animal protein from microorganisms, such as the cows’ milk proteins casein and whey.

Global egg production has almost doubled in the past 20 years, and cellular agriculture could provide an option for a more sustainable way to meet the demands of the consumer. Onego Bio has recently received funding to commercialize their precision fermentation technology for producing egg white without chickens.

The chicken-free egg white protein, bioalbumen, has the potential to be an ingredient in confectionery, baking or could be used as a protein supplement.

We spoke to Maija Itkonen, the CEO of Onego Bio, to find out more about the research behind the production of bioalbumen.

Katie Brighton (KB): Can you explain the principles of cellular agriculture? How does it work? What impact could it have on food production?

Maija Itkonen (MI): Cellular agriculture is an extension of common food production methods. The end products are often the same, the only difference is in how they are made. Cellular agriculture refers to using cellular organisms and bioreactors instead of traditional agricultural systems to produce food ingredients. The main reason for extending food production into cellular agriculture is to lower the environmental burden from the current food system by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use.

KB: What benefits does using cellular agriculture have over traditional farming, particularly for producing egg white?

MI: Anticipatory life cycle assessment using data from a pilot study was carried out to compare the impacts of Trichoderma-derived ovalbumin (Tr-OVA) production with an equivalent functional unit of dried chicken egg white protein produced. Tr-OVA production showed the potential to reduce most agriculture-associated impacts, such as global warming and land use. Switching Tr-OVA production location and using low-carbon energy sources could further reduce environmental impact.

KB: How did Onego Bio initially approach producing bioalbumen? 

MI: We are a spin-off from the research institute VTT, where the teams have been studying the possibilities of producing animal proteins with cellular agriculture for the last six or seven years. Trichoderma research has a long history at VTT.

The project has been part of Finnish VTT's LaunchPad before it was turned into a spin-off company. VTT LaunchPad is a science-based spin-off incubator, where VTT researchers and technology are brought together with the best business minds and investors out there to renew industries. VTT LaunchPad supports incubator teams to develop VTT owned IPR into fundable spin-off companies.

KB: What were the key findings that led to using fermentation to produce bioalbumen?

MI: Precision fermentation was a natural choice for this technology from the start. Precision fermentation is a technology that enables cellular organisms to produce complex organic molecules, such as proteins. The method can be compared to beer production, in which microflora is fed sugar to produce alcohol.

KB: How does the bioalbumen compare to animal-derived egg white in terms of flavour, texture, cost etc.?

MI: The protein itself is identical, and therefore the flavor, texture and ways of using it are identical as well.

Cost-wise, we are still at the laboratory scale but when we move to industrial production, we foresee a cost that is the same or even lower than animal-derived egg white.

KB: What are the next steps before we see bioalbumen reaching the market? What are the challenges associated with this process?

MI: Every novel product has to go through the regulatory procedure, which is designed to protect people. Depending on the market, it may still take months to years to have the commercial approval for the product. However, we are positive and confident about bioalbumen, as it is a known protein made with a known process – just the combination of product and process is new. 

KB: Are there other animal-free proteins that you plan on developing next?

MI: We are fully focused on the bioalbumen at the moment!

Maija Itkonen was speaking to Katie Brighton, Scientific Copywriter at Technology Networks.