San Diego start-up develops algae production platform capable of producing proteins found in bovine and human breast milk

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Triton Algae Innovations develops algae production platform capable of producing proteins found in bovine and human breast milk

Related tags Algae

A San Diego-based firm building a production platform for food proteins from green algae says it can produce recombinant proteins identical to those found in bovine and human breast milk, which it claims could prove a game changer in the infant formula market.

Founded in 2013 as a spin off from UC San Diego, Triton Algae Innovations​ utilizes Chlamydomonas reinhardtii​, a single-celled freshwater green algae species that can grow heterotrophically in fermentation tanks, with the ability to express multiple proteins found in plants and mammalian cells including bovine and human osteopontin.

Triton’s first product targeting the food and beverage industry is a Non GMO 'wild type' whole algae ingredient rich in protein with all the essential amino acids, omega-3 fatty acids, fibers, iron and calcium, which tastes like “sweet parsley​” and works well in everything from snacks and nutritional bars, to cereals, yogurts, juices, smoothies, and sports and energy drinks, said president and CEO Xun Wang, PhD.

Samples are already in the marketplace with larger quantities becoming available next year.

Algae and protein production

Triton is not the first to use algae as a protein production platform; spirulina from firms such as Cyanotech is a source of protein, while firms such as Terravia (now owned by Corbion) have been making protein-packed chlorella ingredients for some years, although they have not yet gained significant traction in the market.

But Chlamydomonas reinhardtii​ has some distinct advantages over other species, Dr Wang told FoodNavigator-USA.

“It has a superior taste and a great nutritional profile, but a big difference is that the cell wall is glycoprotein, so the algae is fully digestible, whereas with chlorella, the cell wall is made from a different material which is harder to digest, and it’s harder to customize via breeding.

“We’ve also shown that we can produce this at scale and customize the nutritional profile without using GMOs by selecting different phenotypes using classical breeding as well as modifying the processing conditions,” ​added Wang, who said there were green and yellow colored versions available.

Triton yellow+green+algae
Triton’s wild-type dried algae powder (C. reinhardtii) is an excellent source of protein, Vitamin A, iron, and omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids; it is also organic, gluten-free, and non-GMO. Triton has identified strains of the species capable of growing yellow or green in stainless steel fermentation vessels.

GRAS determination

The wild type non GMO protein-packed ingredient – which an independent panel recently affirmed as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) in a variety of foods (Triton has also notified the FDA of its determination and is waiting for it to respond) – is attracting a lot of interest from the food and nutrition industry, said Miller Tran, PhD, Triton cofounder and director of R&D.

“One of the things that really excites us is that Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, because of its accessibility and its digestibility, can be a mainstream ingredient, not a niche ingredient​. In the past there was never a scalable production platform for it, but we’ve managed to build one.

“A lot of the protein expression platforms out there, whether it be yeast, bacteria ​[eg. E.coli], insect cells, and so on, they kind of use the same biosynthetic biochemistry, but in the world there are about 300,000 organisms that are green with chloroplasts and there’s not a single protein expression system that takes advantage of these unique biochemical compartments that our algae has.”

triton osteopontin
Osteopontin - a protein found in human breast milk that Triton can produce from engineered Chlamydomonas reinhardtii

These [human breast milk] proteins already exist in nature, we’re just creating them another way

Separately, Triton is also working on the next generation of products from Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, ​which has an unusual ability to produce animal compounds such as those found in mammalian milk, said Dr Tran.

“So for this ​[next generation of products] we’re using synthetic biology and introducing a gene into ​[the chloroplast genome of] of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii.”

If you’re making anything that’s going to go into infant formula, you’ve got to be super sure it’s safe, acknowledged Dr Wang. However, the osteopontin produced by the algae has the identical amino acid sequences to that produced by humans in breast milk, so “it’s not a novel substance,” ​he stressed.

“These proteins already exist in nature, we’re just creating them another way, and we’re talking to a lot of infant formula companies, because they can really see the potential, so we’ll work with them on the regulatory approval process, as we’ll likely need a series of animal studies and that will take time.”

Dr Tran added: “We can make a majority of the proteins found in human breast milk; they are all there for a reason and play and important role, whereas cow’s milk is missing many of them. And as far as we know, we’re the only company able to produce these using microalgae.”

'Compounds in mother’s milk simply can’t be produced by some of these other protein expression systems'

Asked how what Triton is doing with the mammalian proteins is different from what San Francisco-based Perfect Day is doing (Perfect Day produces casein and whey proteins from a genetically engineered fungi strain​), Dr Tran explained:

“Every expression system has advantages for making certain proteins. But you can’t make osteopontin from fungus as it has antifungal properties. Compounds in mother’s milk simply can’t be produced by some of these other protein expression systems.” 

Which makes what Triton is doing a potential game-changer, he claimed. “Some infant formula brands isolate some proteins found in cow’s milk, enrich them and put them into infant formula at a higher concentration such as lactoferrin and MFGM, which helps protect infants against pathogenic infections. But they tend to be very costly.

Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a single-celled green algae species, has the ability to express multiple proteins found in plants and mammalian cells including bovine and human osteopontin.

“We’ve shown that we can make both the cow and the human version of these proteins, which is really unusual.”

Dave Shroeder, director of corporate and regulatory affairs, added that Triton has the capabilities to produce multiple proteins found in human breast milk including Lactadherin, MAA, Lactoperoxidase and Lysozyme C.

But he added: "Ostepontin [OPN] is our focus at the moment, although we absolutely do have the ability to produce a number of other such high-value proteins. There remains much work to be done in order to further develop and refine both the capability and regulatory clearances to produce these proteins at scale, which is why at present we have chosen to focus solely on advancing OPN. 

"That said, we do have the ability to produce all these other proteins as well, and could move forward on one or more of those given the appropriate strategic or market environment."

The GMO factor

But what about the GMO factor? How comfortable are big infant formula brands about utilizing ingredients that have been produced using synthetic biology?

Given that the technology provides such a clear nutritional benefit (ie. enabling mothers who are unable to breastfeed to use formula that has the same proteins found in human breast milk), companies are pretty enthusiastic, claimed Dr Tran.

“I think a lot of concerns ​[about genetic engineering, or adding components found in human breast milk to formula] have been tempered by Abbott Nutrition ​[which adds an oligosaccharide found in human milk to its Similac Pro-Advance formula​ that is produced via microbial fermentation]." 

Triton Algae Innovations team
The team at Triton Algae Innovations

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