Belching cattle cause major damage to the climate. Here’s how a $1.5 million prize from the U. of U. could help change that

The Wilkes Climate Center recognizes a Seattle firm for a fairly simple model that could cut cattle methane by half.

(Lumen Bioscience) Mesfin Gewe, senior scientist at Lumen Bioscience in Seattle, holds a dish filled with powdered spirulina cells. To target methane gas, the spirulina are engineered to express the lysin protein. Lysin can be added to cattle feed to break down methane-causing bacteria, called “methanogens.” Once in a cow's stomach, the protein will destroy the methanogen microbes, a process that results in less climate-damaging methane gas released into the atmosphere by cows.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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It will be a cooler planet if Bossy is less gassy.

The University of Utah’s Wilkes Climate Center has awarded its first $1.5 million climate prize to a Seattle biotech firm, Lumen Bioscience, that has developed and patented enzymes that could potentially halve the climate-damaging methane that cows belch all day.

“Methane is responsible for about 30 percent of the climate change we’ve seen to date,” said William Anderegg, a U. associate professor of biology and director of the Wilkes Center.

While fossil fuels and carbon dioxide deserve the bulk of the blame for climate change, agriculture — particularly livestock — is the biggest generator of human-caused methane.

And cows are by far the biggest source because they are ruminants. Cattle have four stomachs, and it’s the first one, the rumen, where bacteria breaks down cellulose and generates methane in the process. (Because it comes early in the digestive tract, most of the methane escapes the cow as eructation — belching — rather than flatulence.)

(Lumen Bioscience) Spirulina, shown under the microscope, has been modified to produce an enzyme that reduces methane production in cattle.

Lumen – which is primarily a pharmaceutical company – has been developing drugs from spirulina – a blue-green algae that can be genetically modified to produce specific enzymes. One of those enzymes – lysin – can be added to cattle feed to break down the methane-creating bacteria, which are called “methanogens.”

“The enzyme is exquisitely specific — it destroys only methanogens and has no effect on the cow itself or other bacteria that live in the rumen,” said the U.’s announcement of the prize winner. “It’s not absorbed into the cow’s system but is digested in the GI tract like any other protein.”

To this point, the company has only tested it on the content from cow rumens. Lumen Chief Scientific Officer Jim Roberts said the U. prize money will go toward testing on live cattle.

In addition to reducing methane production by 40% to 50%, the U.’s Anderegg said, reducing the methanogens also has the potential of making the cows healthier and able to grow faster because making methane is actually a drain on the cows. And it works with both beef and dairy cattle.

And, importantly, it’s a relatively inexpensive solution that could be spread worldwide. Spirulina, which is sold as a nutritional supplement because it is a good protein source, can be grown in ponds at relatively low cost.

“The Wilkes prize is awarded for addressing a global challenge. For global access, you need a manufacturing platform that is scalable,” Roberts said, adding enough methane-suppressing spirulina for the entire U.S. cattle population could be grown in about four square miles of water. For the entire planet, it’s only about 14 square miles.

Roberts said creating drugs in spirulina drastically reduces the cost of making oral medications. Lumen has gained interest and funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation because the company can deliver large amounts of pharmaceutical treatments for gastro-intestinal diseases cheaply, and they don’t have to be refined. “You just eat the spirulina that contains the drug product. Much of the expense in drug making is downstream processing.”

“It looks very scalable right now,” said Anderegg, who noted the cost of the additive “is a pretty small fraction of what farmers spend on feed.” And if there are gains in the health and growth rate of cattle, it could even be a net gain.

The Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy was created in 2022 with a $20 million donation from Clay and Marie Wilkes. Clay Wilkes was a co-founder of Sandy-based Galileo Financial Technologies, a payment processing platform that was purchased by SoFi in 2020 for $1.2 billion.

“The Wilkes Center goal is to drive innovation in climate solutions and get cutting edge science into the hands of decision makers,” Anderegg said.

The contest drew 77 entrants, and Lumen was one of five finalists. The other finalists were the Inga Foundation, which has developed a system for sustainable farming in rainforests; the Land Institute, which has developed a high-protein bean that is produced from a perennial plant rather than annual; Oscilla Power, which has built a device for generating electricity from ocean waves; and Tamal Roy and Constantine Megaridis, who developed a window coating for buildings that limits heat transfer on hot days but not cold days.

Anderegg said Lumen has earned the prize and is not required to meet any benchmarks for getting a product to market, but the center will help in any way it can.

He also said talks about another prize round are ongoing, but nothing is scheduled at this point. “I think this was an incredibly impactful and useful climate prize. The more often the better.”