Dairy in potatoes? Molecular farming newcomer teaches spuds to act like mammals

Molecular farming has been used by the pharmaceutical sector since the 1980s. In food production, the technology is more recent, but growing in popularity.

The latest start-up to enter the world of molecular farming is Israel-based Finally Foods, which emerged from stealth mode this week. Like others in the sector, Finally Foods is focused on protein production in plants: its protein of choice is casein, and its plant, potato.

Tapping genetic modification for non-GMO casein

Finally Foods is the brainchild of co-founders Dafna Gabbay and Dr Basia J Vinocur, who are serving as CEO and CTO respectively. Their ambition is to provide additional sources for animal-based proteins in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.

For this reason, the start-up is working with molecular farming technology, whereby plants serve as ‘bioreactors’ to produce animal proteins. Finally Foods is initially targeting the main protein found in milk: casein.

Whereas a variety of plants can serve as bioreactors for protein production (including soy and lettuce), Finally Foods has turned to the humble spud. “We think potato is the best host from several perspectives, including the high yield and…extraction of the protein from the host,” CEO Gabbay told FoodNavigator.

Finally Foods is not the only start-up producing proteins via molecular farming. Others include Moolec Science​, PoLoPo​, and Pigmentum​.

Molecular farming is based on genetic modification. In simple terms, the start-up modifies the genes of the potato seed’s DNA to then produce casein once grown. Although the plant is considered a genetically modified organism (GMO), the casein produced is not.

As to the extraction process, Gabbay did not reveal in which section of the plant the dairy protein is produced but told us its location is exact. “That’s one of the key things that is required for an effective and efficient extraction.”

In fact, this also influenced Finally Foods’ decision to work with potatoes. “One of the reasons we chose potato is that…established extraction methods to extract protein from a potato [already exist]. We believe that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and we don’t want to.”

Finally Foods has chosen to produce its complex proteins in potatoes, the variety of which was not disclosed. GettyImages/v_zaitsev

Leveraging AI to boost timesaving and accuracy

Finally Foods was formed in collaboration with Evogene Ltd., an Israeli computational biology company founded more than 20 years ago. The start-up’s co-founder and CTO Dr Vinocur worked at Evogene for most of that time.

The partnership grants the start-up access to Evogene’s GeneRator AI tech engine, which means significantly more activity can take place in a lab.

“We have a licence to proprietary AI technology and through this system we are going to give the plant information that a [dairy-producing] mammal has in order to develop the protein,” explained Finally Foods’ CEO. “The advantage is in accessing the AI engines and all the data, and that’s one of our differentiators.”

Gabbay continued: “It’s an interactive process…you get out the data, you feed it as well to optimise the protein structure.”

Finally Foods secures funding from The Kitchen Hub by Strauss Group

Finally Foods has secured pre-seed funding by The Kitchen Hub by Strauss Group and the Israeli Innovation Authority. The start-up now has lab space in The Kitchen for at least the next year.

The investment marks The Kitchen’s first in molecular farming, but chief business officer Amir Zaidman suggested the decision was a no-brainer.

“Establishing the company under the framework of The Kitchen and investing the pre-seed was an easy decision in this case.”

Evogene’s technology is capable of running ‘hundred of thousands’ of different models to create Finally Foods’ protein and structure, which in essence allows the start-up to test its process before applying it to plants.

“We’re going to save a lot of time in trial and error, especially because in molecular farming the trials are long. So we’re doing as much as we can do in the lab to plan and optimise and test, that’s the added value.”

Ofer Haviv, president and CEO of Evogene said the company is ‘thrilled’ to embark on this new segment. “By harnessing the power of our GeneRator AI tech-engine, molecular farming has the potential to revolutionise the food industry and promote healthier diets worldwide.”

Why molecular farming rather than precision fermentation?

Finally Foods hopes to produce all four subtypes that make up casein – alpha S1, alpha S2, beta, and kappa-casein – within the same plant.

Other food tech companies​ are already producing animal-free casein alternatives, but predominantly via precision fermentation. The technology enables the programming of microorganisms, such as yeast, to produce complex organic molecules like casein.

Precision fermentation works well for a number of proteins. However to produce all four casein subtypes in one go, molecular farming is better, according to Finally Foods’ Gabbay. “Molecular farming as a concept is ideal for complex proteins before it allows the growth of all subunits together in one plant.”

cheese GSPictures

The start-up wants its casein to be used in cheese production. GettyImages/GSPictures

But the start-up will not be hamstrung by ideals of producing all four subtypes if three will do. The goal is to produce casein for dairy manufacturers, primarily for cheese production, and if three subtypes work just as well, ‘so be it’.

Although just one part of the potato plant will produce the dairy protein, Finally Foods wants to make sure nothing goes to waste. “We’re going to use the rest of the plant for which GMOs are allowed, for example in animal feed or biodegradable polymers,” we were told.

Like any novel food, regulation presents a hurdle. Finally Foods is keeping an eye on market approval regulations and which geographies are more lenient of GM crop production. “We’ll take everything into account once we get to that stage.”