Advancements in plant biotechnology could revolutionise agriculture, making factory farms a thing of the past and ushering us into an animal-free era of meat and dairy.

We’re all aware of the polluting nature of the mass production of meat and dairy, not to mention the ethical dilemma in keeping sentient beings in effective slavery for the purpose of producing food. However, despite the  best efforts of vegans, many of us are struggling to end our love affair with meat and cheese. Consumers are disappointed in the taste and texture of plant-based cheese and meat. What if I told you there was a way to have your beloved cheeseburger with not a cow in sight? 

Enter molecular farming. 

Molecular farming is the use of plants to produce recombinant (artificially produced by recombining genetic material) proteins. It was first demonstrated via the plant-based production of human growth hormone in transgenic tobacco in 1986, followed by the first antibody, also in tobacco in 1989. 

The technology broke on to the scene in the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s where scientists expressed a wide range of proteins in various plants. There were high hopes for the pharmaceutical industry who envisaged cheap vaccines, antibiotics and medicines stemming from this new technology.

As is often the case with nascent technology, reality hit and the jarring alarm of regulatory approvals as well as lacklustre scale up results awoke the industry from its dream. The first plant-derived recombinant pharmaceutical approved for human use entered the market in 2012 — over 20 years after the first proof-of-principle demonstrations, by which time investors had largely lost interest. 

Recently, however, it’s had somewhat of a resurgence, this time in climate tech, and it could be here to stay. 

How does it work?

The production of recombinant proteins is broadly achieved via two methods: 

1. Stable (or permanent) expression systems mainly via nuclear transformations; or 

2. Transient (temporary) expression systems. 

Transient systems are when a bacteria or virus infection is allowed to grow on many plants triggering the expression of certain proteins. This is much faster, but much harder to reach high volumes in comparison to stable systems, making it a less established option. 

Stable expressions are the most popular and involve the integration of foreign genes into the nucleus genome resulting in expression of transgenes. A transformation plant vector (usually a nucleic acid found naturally in the plant) is partially digested to remove the original genetic information, only leaving the backbone. This is replaced with the desired genetic information of the chosen protein, to be expressed as it grows and pass on this new ability to it’s offspring. 

Once achieved, we could quickly replicate large numbers of these plants from their seed, in theory. 

In practice, however, increasing seed numbers at first requires long production cycles of propagation. Stable expression is not without risk, after all, and cross-contamination with natural species is a problem.

Examples of this was found in some early adopters, where genetically modified (GM) maize plants cross-pollinated with maize in a neighbouring field. Following this, traces of the GM crop appeared in a soybean harvest that was planted on the same field the year after the maize was removed, resulting in a hefty fine. 

You might still be wondering what this has to do with a cheeseburger. Here’s a simple recipe: 

1.     Take a host plant, ideally soybean or safflower. Maybe even tobacco for that smokey flavour (sorry).

2.     Isolate bovine protein for your burger and casein protein for your cheese. 

3.     Take a nucleic acid from your plant and replace some of the genetic information with your protein of choice. You now have an expression vector. 

4.     Insert your expression vector into your host plant chromosome and grow these in culture into a full plant.

5.     Harvest and extract the accumulated protein in the seeds of\ the plant via purification. 

6.     Replant some of the seeds to repeat step 5.

Using the above (incredibly simplified) method, scientists can produce beef in a soy plant while being certified animal free. The proteins expressed are biologically identical to animal derived proteins, although there is some difference in structure due to the way proteins fold in plants in comparison to animals. This is one of the reasons we can expect burgers and chicken nuggets, but not steaks. 

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Various plant species are used as suitable platforms with tobacco and soy becoming increasingly common, but this vast valley of possibility became the industry’s demise as it was difficult to provide a regulatory framework where an infinite combination of plant platforms and protein are possible. 

Worse still, GM crops in general have had a bad rap, especially in Europe, which made regulatory approval even harder. But there’s nothing like a climate crisis and imminent food chain collapse to make Brussels reconsider, and the EU are now looking at loosening some GMO regulations, paving a possible way forward for recombinant protein for human consumption. This will most likely be in greenhouses or vertical farming setups. 

So, when can we expect these to hit our shelves and put vegans out of their rubber cheese misery?

Numerous start-ups are attempting to commercialise this technology with some managing to produce successful prototypes. In the case of dairy, don’t expect to be able to literally milk plants though.

Start-ups such as Nobell Foods and Mozza grow casein — a protein that makes up 86% of dairy that gives cheese its stretch and melt, something sorely missed from vegan cheese. The casein is harvested from the soybean plant and purified, vegetable fats are added to produce a milk almost identical to dairy milk and then fermented into cheese. 

green beans sprouting

(anan2523/ Pixabay)

In 2021, Nobell Foods raised €75 million in its Series B, with the likes of Bill Gates and Robert Downey Jr throwing a few chips in themselves. They are yet to hit the shelves and have offered little more to the public than a “coming soon” and a very Gen Z focused pizza marketing campaign.

However, there can be no conversation about molecular farming without mention of the big dogs, Moolec

The first and only to go public, at the peak of their share price immediately after hitting the New York Stock Exchange in January 2023 they were valued at a cool $504 million. Not bad for a company with no marketable product. 

They soon came back down to earth and are sitting consistently at $104 million market cap — still, this is nothing to be sniffed at as they recently raised a further $30 million from strategic investors and have made considerable technological advancements. 

Their proprietary system, Piggy SooyTM has produced yields of 26.6% total soluble protein. This is impressive considering average yields in most molecular farming systems for transient proteins are less than 10%.

Unfortunately, their Fiscal Update for Q3 2023 mentioned no notable regulatory breakthroughs except that Moolec have submitted for a regulatory review with the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service and have engaged in pre-submission discussions with the FDA. So, for now, watch this space but don’t expect anyone to bring home the bacon before 2025.