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Metabolic engineering delivers functional proteins

Article-Metabolic engineering delivers functional proteins

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Molecular farming startup PoLoPo is growing custom-made animal proteins in potatoes. These “bio-factories” are capable of growing ingredients at an industrial scale and can provide new sources of ingredients, it says.

Molecular farming is a cutting-edge innovation that involves the production of metabolites and proteins in plants via genetic engineering. In the case of PoLoPo, the focus is on inserting a DNA sequence into the potato plant genome.

When expressed properly, in the right tissue, and at the right time, this method causes the production and accumulation of specific proteins.  

“The inspiration behind PoLoPo came from our in-depth knowledge of plant metabolic engineering,” explains CEO Dr Maya Sapir-Mir. “We understood that plants could be used as protein factories. This led us to examine a few candidate plants – and to finally choose potatoes.”

Sapir-Mir argues that potato is an incredible host because of its general resilience, its ability to grow almost anywhere and in diverse climates, and better yield in terms of weight per land than most other crops.  

Molecular farming: Pioneering a new innovation space

While PoLoPo is still at the beginning of its journey, Sapir-Mir believes that the start-up is well-placed to be a pioneer in this space.

Plant metabolic engineering is our speciality,” she explains. “One of the biggest challenges is usually the construction of downstream processing, for the production of functional protein powder in a cost-efficient manner. Since [we rely] on existing potato processing lines though, we are only focused on that stage of protein separation.”

PoLoPo was recognised for its innovative approach to molecular farming at last year’s FI Europe Startup Innovation Challenge. The company was a finalist in the

Most Innovative Food or Beverage Ingredient category.

The Startup Innovation Challenge was a great opportunity to introduce PoLoPo, and its groundbreaking technology,” says Sapir-Mir. “Overall, Fi Europe was an amazing opportunity to better understand market needs, and to meet the key players in the field of food ingredients. The exposure that PoLoPo got through this event was extremely helpful and unprecedented.” 

Addressing a key market need for functional proteins

PoLoPo sees molecular farming as addressing a key market need. “We saw that the food industry was looking for new sources of functional proteins, which could then be combined or used to replace animal-based proteins,” she explains. “We therefore saw an opportunity to change protein production, and free the food industry from its reliance on animal-based proteins.” 

Key target customers include food manufacturers that want to replace animal-based protein ingredients in their products, as well as ingredient companies.

PoLoPo’s value propostion, says Sapri-Mir, is its ability to deliver functional proteins through a reliable supply chain, unaffected by contaminations and outbreaks. The company also believes that molecular farming can deliver more environmentally friendly food production and at a competitive price.

Our proteins will have superior functionality and nutritional value compared to other plant-based proteins,” says Sapir-Mir. “Also, when compared to precision fermentation, we are looking at lower production costs, easier scaleup, and lower environmental costs for the production of similar proteins.”

While still at a relatively early stage - the company has been funded for just a year – Sapir-Mir and her colleagues are confident that molecular farming is the future of protein production.

“The big food manufacturers we’ve talked with are eagerly awaiting our protein samples,” she says. “Our first products will be native potato proteins and ovalbumin, our first animal protein candidate. I see myself leading PoLoPo and the food industry toward a huge change in protein production.”