BROWNWOOD, TEXAS – December 6, 2021 – Howard Payne University’s Dr. Martin Mintchev and students from his engineering science senior project course aim to feed the world using micro-animal farming. Their design, provisionally called Microfiest, attempts to grow microscopic animals known as tardigrades as rapidly procreating cellulose-to-protein converters. Once the contained environment is converted from being dominated by cellulose to being dominated by tardigrades, it will be dried and milled into protein-rich flour.
“These micro-animals can survive tremendously varied and even very difficult environmental conditions and, if properly farmed, multiply rapidly,” said Dr. Mintchev, professor of engineering and chair of the Department of Engineering. “Because they consume cellulose while growing protein in the process, and due to their extremely high reproducibility, they can be considered an extremely rapid cellulose-to-protein converter and a potentially reliable food source.”
Dr. Mintchev devised the micro-animal farming project not only as an educational opportunity for his students in engineering design and entrepreneurship but also as a humanitarian task for motivating them to become part of a possible solution of one of the world’s most pressing problems – hunger.
“If we learn how to farm micro-animals in huge quantities by feeding them with cellulose that is indigestible for humans, the resulting protein might deliver valuable and much needed nutrition,” he explained. “Interestingly, tardigrades have the ability to preserve themselves in a dormant state even if light, water and cellulose become unavailable, without any need for refrigeration or special conditions, which creates the possibility of long-term simple storage without any energy or special facilities required.”
The fully functional tardigrade farm is, for now, a glass container full of algae, moss, water, light and an initial population of approximately 120 tardigrades supplied by the Carolina Biological Supply Company of Burlington, North Carolina. These tardigrades live, grow and procreate under a caging nanomesh lid provided by CB Tech Inc., of Las Vegas, Nevada. The team will monitor the population dynamics and plans to eventually optimize the living conditions of the micro-animals to maximize their growth and number.
The project has a pending patent authored by Dr. Mintchev; Dr. Gregory Hatlestad, associate professor of biology; and Dr. Lester Towell, former professor of computer information systems and former chair of the Department of Computer Information Systems. The initiative was designed to position the team at the forefront of the fight against world’s hunger while giving the students an opportunity to participate in the process of developing a real business partnership. For now, the team is learning whether tardigrades can be farmed in unpretentious environments and in great enough numbers, but the second part of the project will aim at optimizing the micro-animal farm to maximize protein yield by providing engineering control of moisture, temperature and cellulose supply while ensuring continuous tardigrades population-growth monitoring.
“We have left the estimates of the eventual protein yield and calories for last, when we become certain that these micro-animals can be reliably farmed,” Dr. Mintchev said.
He explains that while previous and ongoing attempts at farming miniature animals such as ants, flies, grasshoppers and crickets did deliver some protein yields, the problems related to the special farming environment needed jeopardized their potential as a reliable food source.
“In contrast, tardigrades do not require any particularly special conditions to thrive and rapidly procreate, as long as cellulose content and water are provided,” he said.
Dr. Mintchev formed the Microfiest Partnership with two seniors majoring in engineering science: Jayden Modrall of Yantis as chief executive officer; and Rylee McGee of Freeport as chief operating officer. Dr. Mintchev serves as president of the partnership.
“This is a very interesting project for our students,” said Dr. Gerry Clarkson, dean of HPU’s School of Science and Mathematics. “Dr. Mintchev has given Jayden and Rylee the opportunity to participate in a project that can potentially address the global problem of inadequate food resources while simultaneously learning about all the processes involved in designing and implementing a major project from its very early stages. Such projects are a valuable and integral part of the education of our engineering students.”
Dr. Mintchev expressed his enthusiasm for the long-range potential of the endeavor.
“I hope this new farming niche will result in the most rapid and yet the most simple and unpretentious cellulose-to-protein converter ever,” he said, “and that our work will one day benefit the millions of hungry people around the globe.”
For more information about HPU, visit www.hputx.edu.
Cutline #1: HPU’s Dr. Martin Mintchev, left, and students Jayden Modrall and Rylee McGee have developed a laboratory project to grow tardigrades, microscopic animals to be cultivated as a potential food source.
Cutline #2: HPU’s Dr. Martin Mintchev examines the growth of tardigrades.