White Dog Labs: Harnessing Bacteria for Salmon Superfood, Human Health
At a facility in Nebraska, White Dog Labs’ massive fermenters will soon hold bacteria by the ton, each of which will be busily converting sugar into more of themselves. After being dried out and filtered, the bacteria will be a protein-rich food source with a salty, mildly buttery taste.
“It’s actually pretty good on popcorn,” says Bryan Tracy, CEO of Newark-based White Dog Labs. But these bacteria aren’t meant for humans, at least not yet. Instead, they are bound for the gullet of farm-raised salmon. Tracy’s company has recently signed a deal with Cargill, a major supplier of fish feed, for his company’s bacterial food, called ProTyton. It’s helping White Dog Labs build that facility, which is located inside an ethanol plant in Sutherland, Nebraska. It’s slated to be producing ProTyton, mainly for Cargill, by mid-2020.
The deal promises to give White Dogs Labs a small role in satisfying the rising global demand for meat. Because wild-caught fish can’t meet that pressure, farm-raised fish promises to be one potential solution.
There are more opportunities to come. The Nebraska plant is expected to be just one-tenth the size of White Dog Labs’ full-scale production in coming years. Tracy also plans to expand the company into the pet-food markets and eventually into human health.
The public is increasingly aware of how our microbiome — the diverse types of bacteria that inhabit our body — shapes our health. Tracy believes that’s creating opportunities for companies like his to offer digestive supplements to the millions of Americans who struggle with symptoms like abdominal pain and constipation.
The bacteria grown by White Dog Labs is called clostridia, and it’s one of the most recent varieties to be domesticated, so to speak. Earlier strains of bacteria, like E. coli, were mainly chosen because they thrive in a lab, though the advent of DNA sequencing has helped scientists learn what actually grows in our guts, Tracy says.
“We’re going against the grain but have a strong scientific basis to justify doing this,” he says. “We have an awesome opportunity to explore those organisms in the past that were unculturable.”
For use in fish feed, clostridia were chosen for their high protein content.
Once they are removed from storage tanks and dried out, clostridia resemble corn meal, though somewhat finer. Clostridia is about 80 percent protein, making it a particularly nutritious element in a salmon’s diet.
Perhaps the most tantalizing part of the White Dog Labs story is its potential scope. Fish are only the beginning. Enlisting bacteria as a nutritional supplement has promise in pet food and human medicine as well.
The bacteria’s high protein content is helpful for animal feed, and clostridia produce butyric acid, which has a number of digestive benefits. In these applications, clostridia will be a live supplement.
Tracy says he doesn’t plan on selling bacteria as a medicine. Instead, he’s looking at a niche of savvy customers who see the benefits clostridia could offer.
“I’m saying I know a healthy gut would have a lot of this, so here you go,” he says of clostridia.
The bacterium also has other promising applications for human health, including the prevention of Clostridium difficile infections, which kill an estimated 29,300 Americans per year.
For all their reputation, bacteria are exemplars of sustainability. Give them some basic building blocks and a carbon source and they can make their own food. Harnessing them as microscopic bacterial factories may be again helping scientists push the boundaries of sustainability.