Plant-based is so much more than proteins for food!
This kind of thing happens often (and it is not just IT algorithms making it happen) – as one starts searching within a subject, a lot of related information seems to start popping around you. It is happening now, with technologies to make plant-based high value products (not food).
About one year ago chart Biotech was having conversations about using plants as platforms for making medicines and other high value products.
Specifically, we were talking about Plant Molecular Farming (PMF) – how to harness plants’ ability to make complex proteins and complex chemicals for medical and health-related applications, using the plants themselves as the producing platform.
Why plants, again? The thing is, we have big problems to solve on this planet, and plants may afford sustainable solutions.
We mentioned Pharma Factory before, a 2017-2022 EU-funded consortium of academic and business teams, that developed clear communication tools about PMF, and initiatives to involve stakeholders broadly and to create public awareness and transparency around the use of plants to produce medicines. They developed, amongst other relevant elements, very clear graphical depictions of the most widespread technologies used in PMF.
While use of PMF for the development of plant-made medicines is still in its early stages, the role of plants’ metabolic potential is continuing to be at the origin of exciting innovation, and it is attracting interest from investors.
After discussing with users and investors over several months last year, we concluded that use of plant cell culture for production of various types of high value molecules and medicines was progressing fast, and that use of whole plants as bioreactors in the same context (production of high value molecules) is a platform that can be of value in low and medium income countries (LMIC), given the relative ease and low CAPEX needed to install a pilot facility – see for example Cape Biologix Technologies in South Africa and Baiya Phytopharm in Thailand. In addition to plants being put forward as “the right platform for the right economic setting”, we further concluded that, as PMF platforms develop more, there will also come “the right products for PMF”, i.e. for some products of value, plants will be the most adequate production platform.
Important recent technological and business milestones were reached by companies that are using PMF for making a) plant-made bioactive molecules, i.e. nutraceuticals, cosmeceuticals and pharmaceuticals, including proteins from animals; b) plant fibers for making fabrics and – a little different – c) tree oils.
Plants can be used to make many products that we use, but it is not sustainable to continue to expand the land areas where we grow plants, so we need to find new ways of sourcing all these plant products, that do not involve more land being exploited.
Cellular Agriculture, that is, “utilization of cell cultures of the whole variety of host organisms for the production of agricultural commodities rather than production by farmed animals or crops”, is thought to provide one such potential path. Climate change may mean that we can no longer continue our current practices for producing, for example, coffee or chocolate or even cotton. The VTT in Finland is using cellular agriculture to address these challenges, for example, they are making Cellular coffee – plant-cell cultures that taste like coffee (check out a video here). As this industry segment develops, Life Cycle Analyses of these processes will be essential in providing indications as to their sustainbility profile.
Plants are playing an important role in affording animal origin-free input products to the cellular meat processes. For example, animal growth factors, essential for growing animal cells in the lab, can be made in plants. A small cluster of companies is working in this approach, and new ones keep getting funding, like Forte Protein, a NY-based Cornell University spin off company, using lettuce to produce animal growth factors and Ergo BioSciences, a Argentine company using plant cells to produce the animal proteins casein and myoglobin, to “create and reproduce organoleptically identical products to those derived from animals”. This is remarkable, as Argentina ranks 6th in the world for beef cattle production. ORF genetics, InVitria (part of Ventria Bioscience), Core Biogenesis, Tiamat Sciences, Bright Biotech, BioBetterTM are also using plants as their “bioreactors” for making animal growth factors and other animal proteins essential for the cellular meat processes. Some are producing food ingredients aiming to replace animal-derived ingredients. For example, Polopo is making ovalbumin in potatoes and Ingredientwerks (a spin off from Agrivida, a MA, USA company using corn gene editing to enable crop production of enzymes usually added externally and therefore improve animal feed and biofuel processes) is using molecular farming to produce myoglobin.
Moving on from food to nutrition, where plant bioactives constitute an important segment, Ayana Bio (a Ginkgo Bioworks company that started activities in September 2019) has launched in April 2023 its first ingredients made via plant cell culture – lemon balm and echinacea. Their ambition is to provide sources that are independent from annual variations in crop yields.
Cellular agriculture is also addressing the production of cellulosic fibers and of wood-derived products. Literally cotton is the first product from Galy.co a company founded in 2019, that is using cellular agriculture to make cotton “To address the issue of excess water and pesticide use in cotton production, Galy offers apparel brands Cellular agriculture is also addressing the production of cellulosic fibers and of wood-derived products. Literally cotton is the first product from Galy.co a company founded in 2019, that is using cellular agriculture to make cotton “To address the issue of excess water and pesticide use in cotton production, Galy offers apparel brands cotton grown from cells in bioreactors.“ According to crunchbase, Galy has raised 32.6 Mio USD in 6 rounds of venture funding. LVHM and H&M are supporting them. Foray Biosciences are “using concepts in plant cell culture, materials science, and tissue engineering, to create viable alternatives to tree-sourced products such as oils”.
One company is developing plant-based solutions to improve the quality of the air in our homes. Growing plants at home is not new, but this company wants to push the ability of plants to improve air quality to another level. Home pollution caused by VOC (volatile organic compounds) can make the air in our houses less healthy than the air outside in our cities. Neoplants has a unique approach to tackle house pollution, because their modified plants are not only accumulating VOC, but also metabolizing, turning the plants into active air purifiers.
In summary: funding for PMF is on the rise! PMF is already used for production of human vaccines and medicines, with Protalix and Chiesi just this month getting approval from the EMA to commercialize their plant-cell-based Fabry disease enzyme replacement therapy. Plant cell based cellular agriculture is being used for production of animal proteins for cellular meat processes and for other novel foods, and also as a means to afford reliable production of nutrition and cosmetic-applied bioactives, and for lab-produced cotton fibers, eliminating the need for water-costly cotton field production.