Fraunhofer Lighthouse Project "FutureProteins"

Coupled agricultural systems for resilient and resource-efficient production of high-quality food proteins

Due to climate change and environmental pressures resilient and sustainable sources of protein, such as plants, algae, insects and fungi, have to be considered as an alternative to animal-based foods. The Fraunhofer Lighthouse Project FutureProteins is seeking to develop cutting-edge technologies for agribusiness and the food industry. Six Fraunhofer institutes have joined forces to develop new and innovative methods of cultivating, extracting and processing vegetable, fungal, insect and algal proteins for use in the production of appetizing, protein-rich, sustainable foods.

FutureProteins – for a resilient and sustainable production of protein

Closed-loop agriculture to secure an environmentally friendly protein supply

Recent decades have seen an increase in intensive agricultural practices involving the use of large quantities of fertilizers and pesticides. This has had a substantial impact on the environment. In combination with the effects of climate change, this is set to affect the supply of protein. In the industrialized western world, foods of animal origin, produced with a high energy input and large amounts of feed, remain the number one source of protein. Yet if proteins are to be produced in a sustainable manner that conserves resources, alternative sources must be found. In the FutureProteins project, scientists are developing closed-loop forms of agriculture that produce alternative sources of protein while also making use of the various by-products. The challenge is to create economically efficient processes and systems that can then be scaled up for industrial use.

New Proteins from plants, insects, fungi and algae

FutureProteins is focusing on the use of plants (e.g., potatoes, wheatgrass and alfalfa), insects, filamentous fungi and microalgae as alternative sources of protein. Alternative protein sources should have a good balance of high-quality amino acids and be easy to process. In addition, the sensory properties of alternative proteins are crucial for their use in foods and should therefore be improved . In order to meet the project’s sustainability criteria, Fraunhofer researchers are seeking to develop four closed-loop systems of cultivation which will enable year-round, climate-independent production and that are therefore efficient, resilient and sustainable:

  • Vertical farming
  • Insect farming
  • Fungiculture with culture media
  • Algae cultivation with photobioreactors
Graphic, Fraunhofer Lighthouse Project »FutureProteins«
© Fraunhofer IGB
Graphic, Fraunhofer Lighthouse Project »FutureProteins«

Vertical farming

This form of plant cultivation can reduce water consumption by 95 percent and fertilizer use by 50 percent. The closed-loop system eliminates the need for pesticides. Here, project researchers are working on a hybrid lighting system that uses a dynamic combination of sunlight and LED light. This is designed to improve efficiency and reduce the costs of vertical farming.

Insect farming

The key challenge here is to prevent the incursion of insect pathogens and thereby enable the elimination of antibiotics and pesticides. Researchers on the FutureProteins project are designing a complex monitoring system designed to protect insect farms against such pathogens. Furthermore, researchers at Fraunhofer IGB develop a molecular detection system for insect and food pathogens.

Fungiculture with culture media

Cultivation of fungi is expensive due to the high costs involved in the production of suitable culture media. Here, project researchers are looking to cut this expense by recycling by-products within a closed loop. At the IGB, researchers screen suitable fungi and cultivate them in submerged culture. Here the most promising substrate combinations are scaled up to the 300-liter stage.


Algae cultivation with photobioreactors

The goal of this work package at the IGB is to develop an AI-controlled, automatic lighting system that optimizes light yield within the new compact stack photobioreactors used to cultivate algae, thereby reducing energy consumption.

Molecular diagnostics for an automated insect farming

The sustainable production of insect proteins as feed for livestock and food for humans represents a globally booming alternative to conventional protein sources such as meat and dairy products. Since January 2018 the EU’s Novel Food Regulation has allowed foods made from insects to be marketed in Europe. The first food insect farm in Germany has been in operation since 2019.

© Fraunhofer IGB
In-house production of a prototype for molecular detection of insect pathogens
DNA microarray
© Fraunhofer IGB
Detection of pathogens by fluorescence signals

Insects as protein source: Need for pathogen detection

However, the production of insects on an industrial scale also promotes the spread of diseases, which can lead to the collapse of insect breeding, production losses and thus serious financial losses. In addition, the insect-based food must be free of human and animal pathogens. A specific and efficient detection system for pathogens in insect farms that is automated, digitized and capable of high-throughput, and that can deliver results promptly and on site, is still missing.

Currently, classic, culture-dependent methods or metagenomic approaches are applied to identify microorganisms in the gut and in the breeding tanks of insects. Both approaches are expensive, time-consuming and tedious, and thus not suitable for daily routine inspections in insect farms.


DNA-based detection of insect pathogens

As part of the FutureProteins lighthouse project, the IGB is developing an automated monitoring system for insect farming together with the Fraunhofer institutes IME and IVV: For this purpose, a molecular detection system covering the eleven most important insect-associated pathogens is being developed at the IGB.

Using insect sample material, DNA signatures of the pathogens are amplified and fluorescently labeled using an isothermal amplification technique. Specific binding to an immobilized probe results in a fluorescent signal that is identified optically and evaluated using a simple matrix. This technique allows for much easier handling than the commonly used PCR applications. In the future, the detection system developed for routine inspection at production sites will be integrated into a partially or fully automated inline system and can ultimately help to minimize the use of antibiotics and promote the resource-saving production of proteins.

Amplification and fluorescence-based labeling of specific DNA sequences from different pathogens, precisely positioned on a microarray via probe.
© Fraunhofer IGB
Amplification and fluorescence-based labeling of specific DNA sequences from different pathogens, precisely positioned on a microarray via probe

Process engineering aspects

Optimized protein extraction and purification

In order to optimize the extraction of proteins, researchers at Fraunhofer IGB digest fungi and microalgae using pressure change technology. Thus, by utilizing various methods, they separate solid and liquid fractions into their individual components, which can either be processed into protein products or be returned to cultivation processes.

Closed-loop agriculture enables cost-effective recycling of by-products

The FutureProteins project is implementing a closed-loop of material and energy flows in all cultivation systems. At the IGB, process water is treated for reuse, and nutrients are recovered for new cultivation cycles. This means that any by-products of the cultivation process will be put to valuable use, e.g. as a substrate for cultivating insects, fungi or algae.

Product manufacturing: high-quality foods from alternative protein sources

Each of these alternative protein sources display different sensory and functional properties. Researchers are seeking for specific extraction and modification processes in order to optimize protein properties. Another important research task is to develop recipes for appetizing foods that will have high consumer acceptance.

Sustainability assessment and maximization of closed-loop recycling

In addition, the closed-loop agricultural systems and protein extraction methods developed for this project will be assessed to determine whether they make better use of resources and are more sustainable than conventional methods. A further aspect of this cross-institute project will be to ensure maximal closed-loop recycling of the materials and energy used in such systems.


The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft intends to strengthen Germany as a center for commerce by rapidly transforming original scientific ideas into marketable products through the Lighthouse Project initiative.

Fraunhofer lighthouse projects are geared toward providing German industry with concrete technologies capable of rapid commercialization.

With its rich fund of scientific expertise from a broad spectrum of fields, Fraunhofer is ideally placed to help industrial companies swiftly turn innovative ideas into marketable products.

In so doing, Fraunhofer seeks to focus on the current challenges facing industry, especially those with a strategic significance for the economy. By involving industrial partners at an early stage, Fraunhofer ensures that its research remains firmly grounded and focused on practical concerns.