WASHINGTON, July 22, 2015 –Algae and leaf-based oils for food and fuel, meat without slaughter, and healthy sugar are all part of the not-so-distant future envisioned at the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s (BIO’s) World Congress in Montreal this week.
“Our world needs what we in this room are doing,” Jonathan Wolfson, CEO of Solazyme, told the 1,200 World Congress attendees in a speech Monday. “Using biotechnology, we make products better for people and better for the planet.”
Solazyme, which won BIO’s George Washington Carver Award this year, turns plant-based sugars into new sources of healthy food ingredients and oils. The San Francisco-based company develops oils with microalgae, providing alternatives to limited resources like petroleum, vegetable oils and animal fats, Wolfson said.
Sapphire Energy, a venture capital-backed company founded in 2007, also focuses on the power of algae, which CEO James Levine said produces 10 times more protein than soy per acre. Produced using sea water and non-arable land, Sapphire’s strains of algae are grown in outdoor ponds and converted into high-value oils, as well as feed for aquaculture and livestock.
“Our focus is currently on nutrition, but we see opportunities for fuel and food,” Levine said.
Sapphire has petitioned EPA for approval of several products, which must go through a Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) review taking up to four years. No algae species are currently considered a “plant pest risk,” so they would not need USDA approval, explained David Glass, of D. Glass Associates, a consulting firm specializing in biotechnology and renewable fuels.
ZuChem, “a leading producer of unique sugars for human health and nutrition,” makes a product called Xylitol from a variety of agricultural and forestry feedstocks, including corn, sugar cane bagasse, and hard and softwoods, David Demirjian, the company’s president, said during a conference panel.
The product has a number of applications as a sugar substitute for the food processing industry, including use as a diabetic sweetener. Developed with USDA, the University of Illinois and the Biotechnology Research and Development Corp., Xylitol can be used in toothpaste as well as a healthier alternative in beverages and gums.
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), also highlighted at BIO, is developing genetically engineered crop leaves that can generate oil at the same level as traditional oilseeds, potentially providing an economically competitive and renewable alternative to petroleum diesel.
Allan Green, research program director for bioproducts at the Australian company, said the process is already viable in tobacco leaves, but that it could be “deployed virtually in any agricultural system.”
In the CSIRO tobacco leaves, the oil yield is equal to that of oil palm, which has the highest yield of any oil crop.
The goal is to achieve a plant oil supply by 2050 that can provide enough surplus oil to replace 40 percent of the globe’s petroleum. “This is going to be a generic technology that can be deployed in any plant,” Green said.
Innovations highlighted at BIO went beyond plant-based products. The CEO of a Brooklyn-based company described his vision of making meat consumption possible without slaughtering an animal. With what he called an “integrated biofabrication platform,” Modern Meadow CEO Andras Forgacs said his company engineers animal cells and tissues to produce edible meat products and material goods like leather.
“If we can grow skin and muscle cells for medical applications, why not do it for consumer applications?” he said.
To produce a hide, the Modern Meadow platform uses the best naturally performing cells of a cow, then proceeds to “tweak the performance of cells so they grow faster,” and then focuses on tissue architecture.
“At the end of process we’ve created a hide that is histologically identical to animal hide,” Forgacs said. “It is real hide from a biological standpoint, but it is devoid of hair, flesh and fat.”
Although the company has no commercial products yet, it first unveiled a meat prototype in 2011 and a leather prototype in 2013. Just last year, it created a “steak chip” engineered from real beef cow cells for a small tasting audience.
Forgacs said the technology is particularly appealing to the leather industry, which is strapped for supply and typically wastes 20 to 50 percent of its product in conventional production. Modern Meadow can more efficiently grow cells to create leather, and do it in a way that is specific to particular companies’ needs, he said.
“We can grow the materials to have favorable qualities that our partners desire,” he said. “Our goal is to…create something better, something that the slaughtered version of our product cannot do.”
He said today’s livestock industry is one of the world’s largest users of land and freshwater and one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters. Calling his product a “more virtuous” alternative to slaughtered animal meat, Forgacs said even vegetarians and followers of certain religions that prohibit animal slaughter could use Modern Meadow products.
“Why raise and care for an animal over many years…and transport it hundreds of miles…If you can actually just grow the cells?” Forgacs posited to the BIO crowd.
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