Howard Payne professor develops micro-animal farming to combat world hunger

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BROWNWOOD, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – In Texas, when you think of farming you probably think about cattle, cotton or wheat.

However, Professor of Engineering at Howard Payne University Dr. Martin Mintchev is also farming, but on a microscopic level.

Dr. Mintchev wanted to put it in perspective.

“For cows, wouldn’t it be ideal for them to grow by themselves and you don’t have to tend to them?” Dr. Mintchev said. “Now, envision the cows as you know them, but you are a giant in Gulliver’s Travels.” 

Dr. Mintchev and two students are developing a micro-animal farm using water bears, or tardigrades, a microscopic animal that can change cellulose into protein.

“If the conditions are right, they can procreate, a couple of them, can produce 100-150 offspring in a couple of weeks or so,” Dr. Mintchev said.

They procreate at a very high rate and are very durable in every climate, Dr. Mintchev said. That’s why they are the perfect resource for ending world hunger.

“The idea is to grow them in a rudimentary way, in the most primitive environment, with just a pot, grass and themselves,” Dr. Mintchev said.

That’s the exact setup he has at HPU. He has his tardigrades is a small glass bowl filled with water, leaves and moss, and a lamp that acts as a light source similar to the sun.

The idea of using tardigrades is that they will slowly consume the leaves and moss, reproduce, and when they have converted enough cellulose to protein, they will drain the bowl of water.

This leaves only the leaves and tardigrades left which, when milled, produces a fine flour-like substance that is packed with protein.

“It can convert this container from almost exclusively cellulose, 99.9% cellulose, to over 50% protein,” Dr. Mintchev said.

It’s almost like turning inedible grass into hundreds of cows that are ready to be eaten.

His goal is to domesticate and farm these water bears and take them to developing countries that have trouble keeping, growing or finding food, and teach them to use simple resources to produce a nutritional meal.

As an added bonus, the tardigrades take little to no attention. All it takes is a little bit of time.

With plenty of grass and leaves, water, sunlight and tardigrades in the world, Dr. Mintchev believes that anyone can live sustainably this way and said with more research, it could be the first stepping stone to fighting world hunger.

“In the heart of Texas, we believe we have a possible solution to solve the world’s hunger,” Dr. Mintchev said.

Dr. Mintchev said that this is only the first step in their analysis, with the next step being optimizing the tardigrades habitat with oxygen, additional water flow and a larger space.

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