One of the buzzy trends in venture capital circles right now is so-called “molecular farming.” The technology has most recently been in the spotlight thanks to the Nasdaq debut of Moolec Science (MLEC), which describes itself as a “pioneer” of molecular farming. In its simplest form, the technology harnesses the production power of plants to make specific substances or compounds for a wide variety of applications, including food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and other health products.
Moolec, which went public via a SPAC in January, currently has two product prototypes created via molecular farming. One is chymosin, or rennet, an animal-produced protein used to make cheese. The other is a nutritional oil known as gamma-linoleic acid (GLA). The company uses specially bioengineered safflower plants to “grow” its ingredients. Moolec is also working on meat replacement ingredients called POORK+ and BEEF+ which are created by enhancing soy and pea plants with pork and beef genes.
Moolec and other companies in the molecular farming space modify the plants they use so that their cells produce a specific substance that commonly comes from animals or other plants. Every company has their own proprietary technology but one of the most common methods of molecular farming starts with agrobacteria, microorganisms that infect plants and transfer some of their genes to them. Once the plants are mature, the particular substance of interest is then harvested from the leaves or other plant tissues.
The industry claims that using plants is less costly than using bioreactors but produces the same or superior quality proteins. The industry also believes growing ingredients via plants is better suited to commercial scalability than using bioreactors. Because of the perceived scale and cost advantages of molecular farming, there is increasing interest from investors.
Some are concentrating on ingredients that can be used in alternative animal products, such as growth factors used to make lab-grown meat, or dairy proteins that give animal-free cheese the same stretch and melt of the real thing. Other companies are producing ingredients used for a wide range of pharmaceutical and cosmetic applications. The pharmaceutical industry has actually been farming host plants and animals for critical ingredients for decades now. In fact, it’s referred to as “pharming”, a mashup of “pharmaceutical” and “farming”.
The first recombinant plant-derived protein (PDP) was human serum albumin, initially produced in 1990 in transgenic tobacco and potato plants. Open-field growing trials of transgenic crops for albumin began in the United States in 1992 and have taken place every year since. In 2006 Dow AgroSciences received USDA approval to market a vaccine for poultry against Newcastle disease, produced in plant cell culture – the first plant-produced vaccine approved in the US.
Most of the bioengineered plants these companies use are grown indoors but some are working to scale to open fields. That of course adds an extra layer of regulatory as well as industry scrutiny that may be tough to overcome. While the USDA has approved planting of pharma crops in every state, there have been some problems with the plants invading other fields.
One example is a company called ProdiGene that in the early 2000s was conducting field trials in GM corn plants that produce avidin, a diagnostic protein. In 2002, volunteer plants showed up in the conventional soybean crop later planted in that field. Because USDA has a zero-tolerance policy, it ordered the destruction of 500,000 bushels of soybeans. In another incident, ProdiGene’s pharma corn cross-pollinated a neighboring field. This required the destruction of 150 acres of potentially contaminated plants. USDA has since introduced more stringent regulations for pharma field trials in the US but there is still strong industry and public opposition to the production of drugs and chemicals in open-field food and feed crops.
Some of the companies currently making big strides in the molecular farming space include:
Elo Life Systems, based in North Carolina, uses molecular farming to make a natural sweetener from monk fruit.
IngredientWerks, a Massachusetts-based company, produces proteins for the alternative meat industry. They are currently working with a company called Motif FoodWorks to produce HEMAMI™, a product that is bioidentical to the bovine myoglobin heme protein found in beef.
Miruku (New Zealand), Mozza (California), and Nobell Foods (California) both use plants to make dairy proteins, primarily for cheeses.
Bright Biotech, a UK company, is working to make plant-based affordable recombinant proteins for R&D, therapeutic, cosmeceutical, agri-food, and industrial applications.
ORF Genetics, a molecular farming startup in Iceland, is already selling growth factors to cultivated meat companies.
Tiamat Sciences, based in Durham, North Carolina, is producing proteins for food and pharmaceutical use.
Medicago is a Canadian company using a plant named Nicotiana benthamiana, a close relative of tobacco, to create vaccines. In February 2022, it received approval in Canada for a Covid-19 vaccine.
Capsumis a French company that recently opened a big production facility in Austin, Texas where it grows a variety of bioengineered plants to produce active ingredients for use in cosmetics. (Sources: USDA, Federation of American Scientists, New Scientist, Bloomberg, Fortune)