Plant molecular farming (PMF) is the process of producing molecules of interest within genetically-engineered plants. Now, the common pharmaceutical technique is coming to food as, increasingly, companies use it for food and feed applications.
Molecular farming technology startup Moolec Science is tapping into this new way of creating alternative ingredients. The company hopes to boost the value chain by developing a new generation of sources. In January 2023, Moolec became a publicly-listed ingredient company. After entering the PMF space in 2020, its path to trading indicates a rise in PMF techniques in the food industry, a move which, in recent years, reflects the growth of biotechnology.
“We use this proof-of-concept platform to go faster, learn and strengthen our science, focusing on developing the plant-based ingredients of the future by replicating nature with molecular farming,” says Gaston Paladini, CEO and co-founder of Moolec Science.
Molecular farming’s beauty is its simplicity, Paladini says, as it only requires modifying the seed in a laboratory at the beginning of the value chain and capturing the existing structure's value.
PMF is ‘a new way of seeing the vegan concept’
“When you grow plants, you harvest and process the grain to separate the oil starch and the proteins,” says Paladini. Moolec aims to get the animal protein in that process without modifying or tailoring the whole process, which is sought after today in the agribusiness value chain.
“We are not modifying techniques to grow, plant, harvest or even recover the proteins in a doctoring process facility because we insert the animal protein gene directly into the plant’s genome in the protein part of the plant,” says Paladini. Soy will remain the same fundamental protein with its expected benefits, yet it will have the addition of an animal protein gene in the soybean’s protein content.
Moolec’s unique product basis is its soy texturisation with animal protein genes. Its production focuses on functional, nutritional, and organoleptic properties to achieve a sought-after product that maintains its sensorial profile.
If the final product has a significant premium, those proteins will remain niche. To transition from animal to alternative proteins globally without compromising taste and nutrition, products must match on cost.
“The power of molecular farming can do this,” says Paladini. “The rationale behind combining meat protein genes with soy is to get the optionality and the possibility to commercialise both without increasing the purification cost.”
Cheese-making enzyme and gamma-linolenic acid
Moolec puts animal-based protein into the seed. The process does not intend to mimic meat; it is not a plant-based replicant of an animal protein. “Technically, it is the same code as the real molecule,” says Paladini. However, it is not taking a biopsy of the animal, which remains removed from the process.
“Plant molecular techniques like Moolec’s are a new way of seeing the vegan concept because of all the rationale, the fundamentals of the vegan movement are around sustainable approaches,” says Paladini.
Cheese processing and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), found within plant seed oils, are more advanced as a proof-of-concept platform, Paladini says, while meat replicas and products are in the R&D stages. Moolec’s current pilot project is directed at cheese processing companies, replicating chymosin found in rennet. This is traditionally extracted from a cow’s stomach.
A sustainable alternative?
“We need to find alternative solutions, not to mimic, but to replicate what nature does with science,” says Paladini.
Using the scale of these farming techniques and the land to grow, scale and utilise industry talent is also a sustainable approach because it removes the livestock, slaughterhouses and other non-environmentally-friendly variables.
Deforestation, carbon dioxide (Co2) emissions and the importance of getting more by producing less are vital priorities, Paladini states.
Selecting a foreign molecule and its host is the first step to creating an alternative protein using PMF. The process step aims to match and combine animal protein and plant hosts that reflect the final applications’ intended aims.
Moolec modifies the genome and conducts field trials and expression testing to test its properties before landing on the champion seed. While the technology can potentially separate the animal protein from its plant-based counterpart if the customer wants this, Paladini says, “the competitive advantage here is to think of the combination at the beginning of the scientific process”.
The future path for PMF: Novel food approval is essential
PMF is a “very technical sale”, Paladini says. As multiplication is expected to take between two to three years, Moolec is anticipating it will be 2025 before its PMF-led products move from operation to commercialisation.
To use PMF techniques and ingredients, companies require novel food status. Moolec is currently working on meeting these regulatory requirements. “We are conscious and working hard back and forth with regulators as we speak,” says Paladini.
“When Moolec talked about molecular farming in food in 2020, we were alone in the alternative landscape,” says Paladini. Three years later, there are more than 10 companies using techniques in the new alternative protein space.
“It validates pathways and creates a new avenue for food producers to improve ingredients using these techniques,” he says. This approach is better for regulators, regulatory routes, relationships with established players, credibility, and science.
Collaboration is central to scaling PMF techniques, Moolec believes. The company aims to collaborate with molecular farming, alternative protein companies and established players with existing technologies.
“The market and the challenge is so big that we need to work together, and there is room for all,” says Paladini. “We haven’t reached what plants can do and what molecular farming can do.”