Nova Scotia

Halifax company first in Nova Scotia to harvest single-cell organisms

Smallfood, based in downtown Halifax, holds Nova Scotia's only aquaculture licence for single-celled marine microalgae. Their unique microbe was picked after studying more than 20,000 others, and is in the same family as brown seaweed.

Nova Scotia international hotspot for marine biotechnology, says researcher

Smallfood's 'more perfect protein' sourced from a unique marine microbe. (Smallfood)

You'll need a microscope to check out Nova Scotia's smallest aquaculture species.

Smallfood, based in downtown Halifax, holds the province's only aquaculture licence for single-celled marine microalgae. 

Their unique microbe was picked after studying more than 20,000 others, and is in the same family as brown seaweed, according to Smallfood CEO Marc St-Onge.

"This is probably the most primitive food that has existed ... it is the origin of food," St-Onge said.

"Yes, we've gone through, you know, three, four billion years of evolution, but we still have that original food that's available today."

Biomass fermentation

Like the processes used to make yogurt or kimchi, St-Onge said their microbe produces protein through biomass fermentation. They grow and harvest the proteins in industrial-scale vertical tanks, giving their space a brewery-like appearance.

Once they separate the biomass from the water, St-Onge said they can process those cells into a "suite of different food ingredients." Their main focus at the moment is a vegan ingredient with about 90 per cent protein content that they can sell to food, beverage or supplement manufacturers.

The Smallfood lab in downtown Halifax where they harvest single-cell organisms to create an alternative protein. (Smallfood)

St-Onge believes his company is not only the first in N.S., but in Canada, to get an aquaculture licence for a single-celled organism.

Bruce Nunn, spokesperson for the province's Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, said they issued Smallfood's licence in March 2020.

It is the only licence that Nova Scotia has issued for single-celled marine microalgae, Nunn said, although 10 have been issued for macroalgae like seaweed.

"This is a continually evolving field and we are excited to have a company pursuing this type of innovative development in Nova Scotia," Nunn said in an email.

Marc St-Onge is the CEO of Smallfood, a microbial ingredient company based in Halifax. (Smallfood)

St-Onge said a long list of criteria went into finding this organism. They wanted to find a microbe that produced proteins, fats and amino acids similar to animal proteins, which are considered the "gold standard." As well, the microbe needed to grow quickly.

Starting from scratch, St-Onge said a small vial of this microorganism could lead to "tractor-trailer loads of protein going out the door in seven days." For comparison, he said soy or peas take seven to nine months, while beef takes several years for the cows to grow.

Since the food production industry is one of the major drivers of climate change, St-Onge said it's important to rapidly adapt to alternative proteins like microbes, which are more sustainable than meat or fish.

Traditional fishing and farming won't go away, St-Onge said, but could ideally be done on a smaller scale using healthier methods.

"Feeding 10 billion people by 2050, there's only one way that we can continue to use these traditional forms of agriculture in a way that is more caring and supportive for the planet," St-Onge said.

"We need to shift the base, the foundation … enter microbes."

Other microbe companies drawn to Halifax

St-Onge said they are working to build their first large-scale facility in Woodside, N.S., which they hope to complete within the next 18 to 24 months, with plans to build manufacturing sites globally.

Smallfood is just one of many microbe companies setting up shop in Halifax.

DeNova has been working out of the city since 2017, and developed technologies that "convert greenhouse gases into a high quality, sustainable microbial protein product" from sources in Alberta, company spokesperson Talia Boates said in an email.

Boates said they also hope to create change in the food supply chain beginning with aquaculture, and currently employ 11 people. They plan to double that number by the end of 2021.

"Bacteria are the world's most efficient carbon recyclers, requiring dramatically less land and water resources per tonne of product compared to traditional agriculture," Boates said.

There's also Mara Renewables, who have a marine microalgae strain from the shores of Atlantic Canada that produces omega-3 fatty acids, according to their website.

Stephen O'Leary is a scientist with the National Research Council of Canada who studies marine plants like algae, seaweed and micro-organisms. (National Research Council of Canada)

Stephen O'Leary, a research officer with the National Research Council of Canada's (NRC) aquatic crop and resource development centre in Halifax, said the city has a unique set of infrastructure and resources that attracts businesses.

He also leads a team looking into algae and synthetic biology, and they work closely with businesses in Halifax to help bring these products to the public.

Besides the NRC labs in Halifax and Ketch Harbour, N.S., there are facilities like the Bedford Institute of Oceanography and local universities that collaborate, O'Leary said, and the area has plenty of skilled workers in this field.

O'Leary said not only is Halifax a "national hotbed" for marine biotech companies, but it has become an international and global centre.

The National Research Council of Canada's marine research station in Ketch Harbour, N.S. The NRC has been growing phytoplankton, zooplankton, seaweeds, finfish and shellfish in Ketch Harbour for nearly 50 years. In recent years, their marine cultivation facility has been outfitted with additional equipment for the production of substantial quantities of microalgae. (Pier-Adam Turcotte/National Research Council Canada)

For those still unsure about the idea of eating this type of protein, O'Leary urged people not to see them as "scary little alien particles in the ocean," but simply very small and abundant plants.

They consume carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, create sugars, create fats and create proteins, O'Leary said, and what's "really exciting" is humans only really know a fraction of them.

Some microorganisms can be developed into fuel, construction materials, or pharmaceuticals, he said. 

With so many microbes still undiscovered, O'Leary said the possibilities are limitless.

"It's an exciting time to be working in marine biotechnology, and Halifax is probably one of the most exciting places in the world to be active in this area," O'Leary said.

"We want to make sure that everyone knows about it."


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