Thermophilic breakdown of keratin-laden biomass waste

Project coordinator:
Nils-Kåre Birkeland PhD, University of Bergen, Norway

Partner countries:
France, Kenya, Norway, United Kingdom, South Africa

Scientific abstract
Keratin is a fibrous and recalcitrant structural protein and is the third most abundant polymer in nature after cellulose and chitin. A wide spectrum of animals have developed a diversity of keratins used as structural parts of their outer protection which make up major component of feathers, hair, horns, hooves, cloves, nails etc. Their recalcitrant nature is due to properties such as a high degree of cross-linking by disulphide bonds, hydrogen bonds and hydrophobic interactions. Keratin-laden tissues represents a significant challenge for the animal rendering industry. For example, feathers consist of more than 90% keratin and represent a huge waste product of the poultry industry, where most ends up in landfills or is being burned. Similar challenges exist for other keratin-containing biomass waste. Today, most feather waste is discarded or ineffectively rendered for animal feed or fertilizer.

This project will address the application of selected anaerobic thermophilic bacteria which can be optimised for keratin-laden waste material degradation as well as the understanding of the enzyme activities within the bacterial species responsible for this degradation. This will lead to improved control and understanding of the overall keratin-degrading process and its improvement and efficiency by using organisms expressing the required activities or using novel enzyme cascades of thermophilic keratin degrading enzymes in vitro optimised for keratin breakdown in a cost effective and controllable manner.

ThermoK will bring together a multidisciplinary team of academics in order to take the results obtained to a transfer level 5 and above, including upscaling of the process. The project will contribute to the designing of more sustainable and resilient food systems and contribute to the vision of a circular economy by using waste products and converting them to other valuable commercial products including peptides, amino acids, fish feed and agricultural fertilizers.


University of Exeter, Exeter, UK

The French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), Bagnols-sur-Cèze, France

University of the Free State (UFS), Bloemfontein, South Africa

University of Nairobi, Nairobi, Kenya

The Norwegian Research Centre (NORCE), Stavanger, Norway