Agtech: molecular farming uses nature’s factories to make future foods

Molecular farming harnesses the power of fruits and vegetables to grow ingredients in more efficient ways and protect endangered plants.
31 August 2023

Plants are nature’s factories and molecular farming builds on that concept to produce rare and hard to grow ingredients in more sustainable ways.

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Agricultural technology (agtech) is a booming area. On TechHQ we’ve written about how robots are being developed to harvest soft fruits, why strawberries are a trophy crop for AI, and even reported on beans that taste like bacon. But the developments don’t stop there, and one of the most interesting approaches being deployed in the field – guided by advances in computational biology – is molecular farming.

The food sector could be a big winner as agtech firms explore how molecular farming – which puts plants to work as natural factories – can deliver ingredients in new ways. “Consumers want clean labels and to get away from artificial ingredients,” Todd Rands, President and CEO of Elo Life Systems told TechHQ. “And food producers are so excited that we’re moving to the natural part of the spectrum.”

Last year’s Food & Health Survey by the International Food Information Council suggests that more than half of Americans are considering eating patterns that include clean and plant-based eating, and calorie-counting diets.

Rands describes the molecular farming process as ‘working with a symphony of genes’, which – at a high level – can be thought of as a kind of computer code for making proteins, the building blocks of cells and tissues.

Developing healthy alternatives to sugar

Elo’s first product is a natural sweetener derived from monk fruit, which the company is producing using watermelons. And the end goal is to use a variety of other crops to make the plant-based ingredient even easier to grow locally. For example, in the lab, Elo’s scientists grow tomatoes that have been transformed to express the company’s sweeteners.

Searching online for ‘the best natural sweetener’ generates numerous mentions of monk fruit (Siraitia grosvenorii), which is native to China and a member of the Cucurbitaceae family that includes squash, pumpkin, melons, and cucumbers. However, the preferred growing conditions for the small green fruits are misty, mountainous regions.

Molecular farming techniques – such as those being deployed by Elo Life Systems – make it possible to produce the prized natural sweetener in other crops, which can be selected to suit local growing conditions. Also, monk fruit is said to spoil relatively quickly after harvesting from the vine, which points to the merits of using other longer-lasting crops as natural factories for mogrosides – a group of molecules that taste much sweeter than regular sugar.

By making monk fruit, or at least its sugars, more widespread and less challenging to produce, Elo hopes to make the economics of lower calorie alternatives to sugar more appealing to food companies and consumers.

“Elo’s first product – a new plant-based sweetener inspired by natural monk fruit – will eliminate excess calories in thousands of everyday food and beverage products that consumers love,” Rands told investors earlier this year, when ELOlife announced that it had closed $24.5 million in Series A funding.

In fact, depending on the plant that’s chosen to express the molecularly farmed food ingredient, the approach gives developers the opportunity to stockpile the natural product ahead of processing. For example, rice and wheat can be stored for long periods of time, and molecular farming opens the door to extending the warehousing window for other ingredients.

Molecular farming and food security

Besides delivering natural ingredients in new ways, the plant engineering behind molecular farming can also be used to protect crops under threat from disease. For example, consider the Cavendish banana – a familiar fruit worldwide and the ideal snack thanks to its nutritious flesh and biodegradable ‘packaging’. And while shoppers may take the availability of bananas for granted, growers live in fear of Fusarium wilt – a soil-based disease that affects the plant’s vascular system and eventually wipes out the crop.

It’s said that as much as 80% of the world’s banana production could be under threat from TR4, the fungal strain that causes Fusarium wilt in Cavendish bananas. Food company Dole – a major supplier of bananas – has teamed up with Elo to see whether plant engineering can help to develop TR4-resistant varieties. Their strategy includes turning on dormant genes in the banana plant to protect it against disease or inserting genes from other resistant plants.

“Nature was our guide and there are field trials going on currently,” said Rands. “We’re looking at cousins and grandchildren of rare bananas and, from that diversity of genetics, finding elements that provide resistance.”

Elo’s team of scientists is using a combination of knowledge mining and genome editing to prepare varieties that have the potential to combat the threat of TR4. And the researchers are applying their molecular farming knowledge to safeguard various crops.

In 2020, the group published a comprehensive genome sequence of commercial vanilla species, collaborating with the Tropical Research and Extension Center (TREC) at the University of Florida. The molecular farming company notes that the vast majority of the popular spice is sourced from the same area. And, based on market projections, there may not be enough supply to meet demand.

Today, 80% of the world’s supply of vanilla comes from the islands of Madagascar. But, like many crops, the spice is at the mercy of climate change. Between 2018 and 2022, Southern Madagascar experienced prolonged periods of drought. The islands are also vulnerable to typhoons.

The hope is that techniques such as molecular farming and related biotechnology will help to diversify the supply chain of not just vanilla, but many crops that are at the perils of increasingly severe weather patterns. And it’s another example of why the agtech space is attracting so much interest from investors and food producers.

Plants are remarkable. From a technology standpoint, they are solar-powered, self-healing, self-assembling, and self-replicating, which is a very impressive combination of device properties. Opportunities even include novel biocomputing architectures, which is another plant-based field that’s fascinating to dig into.