Oct 12 2021

Making Proteins with Plant Molecular Farming

As the world is contemplating ways to make its food production systems more efficient, productive, sustainable, and environmentally friendly, biotechnology is probably our best tool. I won’t argue it’s our only tool – there are many aspects of agriculture and they should all be leveraged to achieve our goals. I simply don’t think that we should take any tools off the table because of misguided philosophy, or worse, marketing narratives. The most pernicious such philosophy is the appeal to nature fallacy, where some arbitrary and vague sense of what is “natural” is used to argue (without or even against the evidence) that some options are better than others. We don’t really have this luxury anymore. We need to follow the science.

Essentially we should not fear genetic technology. Genetically modified and gene edited crops have proven to be entirely safe and can offer significant advantages in our quest for better agriculture. The technology has also proven useful in medicine and industry through the use of genetically modified microorganisms, like bacteria and yeast, for industrial scale production of certain proteins. Insulin is a great example, and is essential to modern treatment of diabetes. The cheese industry is mostly dependent on enzymes created with GMO organisms.

This, by the way, is often the “dirty little secret” of many legislative GMO initiatives. They usually include carve out exceptions for critical GMO applications. In Hawaii, perhaps the most anti-GMO state, their regulations exclude GMO papayas, because they saved the papaya industry from blight, and Hawaii apparently is not so dedicated to their anti-GMO bias that they would be willing to kill off a vital industry. Vermont passed the most aggressive GMO labeling law in the States, but made an exception for the cheese industry. These exceptions are good, but they show the hypocrisy in the anti-GMO crowd – “GMO’s are bad (except when we can’t live without them)”.

Well here is another GMO technology that perhaps soon we will not be able to live without – plant molecular farming. This is similar technology to the use of engineered bacteria or yeast to produce desired proteins, except that it uses plants. One platform being developed is barley. Researchers insert a gene for the desired protein into the DNA of barley, which then produces the protein in its seed. The protein can then be purified from the barley and put to use. The barley platform has several advantages.

First, most of the contaminants will be in the outer casing, which once removed leaves behind mostly the desired protein. This still has to be further purified, but the process can be cost-effective. Second, the seeds can be stored indefinitely, which helps create a stable and predictable supply line for industries relying on the protein. An third, the entire process is much less expensive than using bacteria or yeast, which require costly bioreactors.

Barley (and potentially other plants) can be efficient self-replicating biofactories. That is what mostly agriculture is – using crops as biofactories to produce edible products. We already use the same system to produce products for things other than eating, such as the cotton industry for creating textiles, or the biofuel industry. The barley platform is simply using genetic engineering to expand the possibilities.

The specific application being worked on is using engineered barley to produce growth factors (EGF, FGF BASIC, IGF-1, IL-6, KGF, LIF, VEGF 165) used in making lab-grown meat from stem cells. Currently, the growth factors are responsible for 80% of the cost of making cultured or lab-grown meat. If we could mass produce them from barley, this might significantly bring down the overall cost, perhaps into the realm where the average person can afford to buy it at the supermarket.

Lab-grown meat starts with muscle stem cells and then cultures them in vats. You’re not going to pull a steak out of the vat, but you can get something you can use as ground meat. The putative advantages of this technology are that, you can use the stem cells from any animal, you can choose or modify the stem cells for their nutritional and health qualities, and no animals are sacrificed to produce the meat. Whether or not this is a net advantage in terms of carbon footprint is still a matter of debate, and a moving target as the technology improves.

Using plant molecular farming to source the growth hormones, however, is one of those technological advances that changes the equation. It remains to be seen if this will be enough to get cultured meat over the finish line in terms of a sustainable source of meat. But it certainly makes it much more plausible.

The other major meat alternative is plant-based meat substitutes, like the impossible burger. I have tried these multiple times, and while they are not bad in themselves, are not even close to fooling me into thinking I am eating meat. The formulas keep improving, and I will keep trying them, but I don’t think they are good enough to replace the meat industry. However, plant-based meat substitutes might benefit from GMO technology also. Imagine engineering a plant to produce proteins that are meat-like (or even actual meat proteins), and substances (like hemoglobin – which is already in the Impossible burger) to produce the taste and mouth-feel of real meat.

As this technology develops, I suspect it will produce another dilemma for the anti-GMO nature is best crowd. Imagine if we had a convincing, cost-effective, and environmentally beneficial but genetically modified plant-based meat substitute (whether cultured meat fed with GMO plants or made directly from such plants). We could significantly reduce the animal-based meat industry, one of the holy grails of environmental groups, but they would have to look the other way in terms of GMOs.

I think they will (mostly) do it. They already look the other way for GMO papayas, cheese production, medicines like insulin, and other areas where there is no practical alternative. They don’t confront the dilemma, they just ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. I suspect they will do the same for meat alternatives. In the end this is an ideological and marketing battle anyway, not a pragmatic one. They want to demonize GMOs to promote their own brands (like organics), and many are truly convinced by misinformation about GMOs. But they are not going to actively campaign to kill the Hawaiian papaya industry, or decimate the cheese industry. They are campaigning to prevent a treatment for blindness (golden rice), but once established as an effective measure to combat vitamin A deficiency, it will be hard to take it away, and they will probably quietly move on to the next battle.

So far I have not heard any pushback against the barley platform for plant molecular farming. One good thing is that the science of genetic modification is advancing pretty quickly, and perhaps getting a little ahead of the political campaign to demonize this technology.

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