Like many technologies that drive innovation in the field of alternative proteins, plant molecular agriculture has traditionally been used in the pharmaceutical industry. The practice – of genetically modifying a culture so that its cells produce a desired protein – is being discussed as a way to quickly produce proteins for COVID-19 vaccines.
In the food industry, molecular agriculture is a way of producing animal proteins which give eggs, dairy products and meat products their visual, taste and functional properties. Molecular farming allows you to use the exact same protein that would normally be produced by a chicken or a cow, without the need for real animals.
Moolec Science, a spin-off of Argentina-based agrotechnology company Bioceres Crop Solutions, is arguably the most important name in molecular farming for the food industry. Moolec already sells chymosin, a cheese enzyme, which the company grows in safflower plants. They also succeeded in growing meat protein in soybean and pea plants.
The Moolec team believe molecular farming can help lower the end costs of alternative meat products. (“There is nothing better than low-tech agriculture to produce on an improved scale and at low cost,” CEO and company co-founder Gastón Paladini told The Spoon in October.) And they might be right.
Molecular farming can help producers avoid some of the expensive and delicate problems associated with growing proteins in traditional bioreactors. When you use a plant as a bioreactor, as food scientist and thought leader Tony Hunter pointed out in an article this year, you don’t have to worry about maintaining sterile conditions: Plants have a built-in immune system. .
Moolec plans to launch its first animal-free meat protein in late 2022 or early 2023. The company is currently working on regulatory approval for its products – and its progress will be an interesting test of the brand’s regulatory tolerance. genetic engineering from Moolec.
A potential concern for regulators as they scrutinize molecular farming processes will be the possibility of gene flow from modified crops to related plants. Tiamat Sciences, a molecular farming startup based in Belgium, limits this possibility by growing its crops in a confined vertical farming system.
Tiamat intends to grow alongside the meat industry based cells. “By targeting emerging markets on the verge of scaling up, we have already demonstrated significant traction for our solutions and early revenue potential that is exceptional for a biotech startup,” said Tiamat Founder and CEO France-Emmanuelle Adil, in a recent press release. Release. The company currently produces GRAS certified animal-free growth promoters for farmed meat and also manufactures proteins for the pharmaceutical industry.
Last month, Tiamat announced it had raised $ 3 million in seed funding led by Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm True Ventures. The company is using these funds to build a pilot facility in Durham, North Carolina. So we could see them increase their capacity in the coming year.
Molecular farming startups still have a few issues to tackle. As Tony Hunter noted in his article on Molecular Agriculture, plant tissues have larger and fewer protein-producing cells than the same volume of mammalian tissue, making plants less productive as a protein factories. And there are costs associated with extracting protein molecules from plants at the cellular level.
Yet the same benefits of molecular farming that make it attractive to the pharmaceutical industry are likely to continue to attract the interest of alternative protein producers, especially as these producers look for ways to bring down the retail prices of. their products.