MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Herbal remedies come from herbs, of course. Much of our food and flavors and spices come from plants too, but plants take time to grow. They need land and sunlight. Well, now biotech companies are starting to produce a few nutrients and flavors in fermentation tanks filled with microorganisms. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: I went to visit Mattheos Koffas in his lab at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, because I had heard he was using microbes to make things.
MATTHEOS KOFFAS: Yes, we make a lot of different stuff.
CHARLES: Stuff like antioxidants - these chemicals are found in plants. And there's evidence they repair damaged cells in our body, protect against cancer and heart problems. Antioxidants called anthocyanins can be found in colorful foods like raspberries.
KOFFAS: I'm convinced that it does have health benefits and actually Andrew's making some anthocyanins right there.
ANDREW JONES: This is actually anthocyanins.
CHARLES: Andrew Jones is a graduate student. He holds up a thick glass tube, a little bigger than my thumb, filled with a milky fluid.
JONES: And you can see the slight change in color. It's a little red. It's a red compound that we're producing.
CHARLES: What's happening here is the cutting edge of biological manufacturing. That glass tube is full of bacteria - a very common harmless strain of E. coli bacteria. But Koffas and Jones have inserted some extra genes into the bacteria.
KOFFAS: We engineer their genetic circuits so that they can actually produce chemicals for us.
CHARLES: These genes exist in many plants. Each gene churns out a specific enzyme and together the enzymes form a chemical assembly line in the cell. Step by step they build that anthocyanin compound. Now, you may be asking the obvious question. If this assembly line already exists in raspberries, why not just get your anthocyanins there? Seems simpler, but Jones says bacteria have big advantages.
ANDREW JONES: Plants take a long time to grow, where E. coli can grow overnight. It's also much more scalable. Plants require light. We can grow E. coli in a large fermenter.
CHARLES: Basically, the microbes have been turned into little nutrient factories. Koffas and his university have licensed this genetically altered strain of bacteria to a company called Chromadex. The company is scaling up the process.
KOFFAS: We're hoping in a couple of years there are going to be microbially produced anthocyanins commercially available.
CHARLES: The idea of using microbes to produce valuable molecules is not really new. Biotech companies have been making pharmaceuticals this way for several decades. But now they're moving into the more familiar world of food ingredients. Think of all the valuable compounds that we get from plants or animals - the flavors in spices, oils - David Bressler, at the University of Alberta in Canada, says it should be possible to use microbes to make all of them, and more, starting with the most valuable ones.
DAVID BRESSLER: There are companies right now that are really hot on the heels of producing the unsaturated fatty acids or the omega-threes that we get now from fish - people looking at fermentation systems with algae, etcetera.
CHARLES: What's the most cutting edge or difficult food ingredient that you've had personal experience with?
BRESSLER: (Laughter) I can't share that information because yeah, obviously, the companies that are making these things often don't want to identify what they're making.
CHARLES: There are two reasons why companies don't want to talk about this, Bressler says. The first is they want to keep their valuable secrets, like what strain of bacteria they're using. The second reason is they're afraid of getting caught up in the controversy over genetically modified organisms - GMOs. They don't really know how consumers will react to the idea of healthy oils or flavors coming from genetically modified microbes.
And there are vocal critics who say there may be risks if you're creating strains of yeast or bacteria with combinations of genes not found in nature. One company that is happy to talk about its products is called Evolva, based in Switzerland. Neil Goldsmith is the company's founder and CEO.
NEIL GOLDSMITH: If we're asking you to eat our product then fundamentally we owe it to you to explain how we're making it.
CHARLES: Evolva inserts new genes into ordinary baker's yeast to make its products. It has two products on the market already. One is resveratrol, another antioxidant. Up to now it's been extracted from plants. They're also making vanillin - the main flavor compound in vanilla extract. Their microbe-made flavor competes with synthetic vanillin made in chemical factories. Evolva is close to selling a yeast-produced version of saffron, an ancient spice that's harvested with great care from a crocus flower.
GOLDSMITH: You know, there's a lot of people that aren't getting to use saffron because it's so expensive. So if we make it more affordable then hopefully we change that.
CHARLES: As for those concerns, the Food and Drug Administration does not think that what Evolva is doing is particularly risky. It's taking biological building blocks that we've been eating for centuries - the plant genes, the enzymes, the microbes - and reassembling them in new ways. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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