How to open source precision fermentation?

Fermenter vessel

It's been eight years since I last experimented with building my own bioreactor as part of the first BioHack Academy, organised by Waag Futurelab in Amsterdam. Reading George Monbiot's recent article in The Guardian about precision fermentation has me all excited about bioreactors and fermenters again, so much so that it's all I've been reading about this past week.

Up until recently, precision fermentation was mainly used to manufacture insulin and the rennet substitute, chymosin, used to make cheese. But precision fermentation can also be used to have microorganisms (yeast and bacteria) generate edible protein, instead of the usual macroorganisms (cows, sheep, pigs and chickens). Now there are companies using precision fermentation to make the casein protein found in milk and then creating ice cream and other diary products, like cream cheese. Impossible Foods use precision fermentation to make the heme protein found in meat and then creating burgers. Solar Foods literally creates protein out of thin air, using carbon dioxide and hydrogen as inputs to create an edible protein powder.

One of the four pillars of the Reboot Food manifesto, written by the RePlanet NGO and supported by Monbiot, requires precision fermentation technology to be open source:

The benefits of the food revolution should be shared with all, with new technologies made open source and corporate concentration actively mitigated.

However, as Sue Branford points out in the Guardian, almost all existing precision fermentation technology is patented by VC-funded startups or large corporations:

Even though Monbiot says that he would like poor countries all over the world to install fermentation tanks under local control, this seems unlikely. The technology, developed under corporate control, has been patented. Corporations driven by profits are unlikely to democratise control, and the technology is likely to be used by them to extend their reach over the natural world.

So far I could only find one company, SuperMeat, that is talking about the importance of open source in precision fermentation. And then only to develop a screening system for the ingredients used in precision fermentation.

Not finding any open-source precision fermentation projects online, I started looking for open-source bioreactors instead. Unfortunately most of these types of projects only built a prototype and have since been abandoned. I decided to do a search on GitHub for bioreactors and, sorting by most recently updated, came across Pioreactor.

Pioreactor is the open-source bioreactor project I've been wanting to exist for the past eight years. I don't know why I haven't heard of this project before, but I'm so glad that it exists and that they're due to start shipping their first kits soon. It looks like they've managed to develop a solid piece of hardware with working software, and I can't wait for it to become available so that I can start playing with it.

How do we go from the current corporate-captured present to an open-source future? Open-source bioreactor projects like Pioreactor may be part of the solution. While you're not going to grow any substantial amount of food in a Pioreactor, it provides an accessible and affordable platform for experimentation and getting started with precision fermentation.

Or as Adam Greenfield so eloquently puts it over on Mastodon: