‘We’ve had pushback [over genetic engineering] for years now, but the conversation has to change’

Motif Ingredients CEO: 'The idea that technology may need to play a role in food is becoming more and more acceptable'

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: Gingko Bioworks
Picture: Gingko Bioworks

Related tags: Motif Ingredients, Fermentation, synthetic biology

If printing out DNA sequences that instruct yeast or bacteria to express proteins identical to those in eggs or milk in big fermentation tanks sounds a little ‘unnatural,’ consider how natural, sustainable, or indeed ethical, it is to continue to produce animal proteins on an industrial scale the way we do currently, says the CEO of Motif Ingredients, which has just raised a jaw-dropping $90m.

Growing plant proteins, meanwhile, also requires energy, water, and arable land, which is finite, says Jonathan McIntyre, a former SVP of R&D at PepsiCo, and now the CEO of Boston-based Motif Ingredients​,​ which is deploying synthetic biology to engineer microbes to produce proteins with a fraction of the environmental footprint of their conventionally-produced counterparts.

We’re not anti-meat or anti-animals or anti traditional agriculture,​” he told FoodNavigator-USA. “We’ll still have dairy and eggs in the future, but a higher proportion of animal protein will come from fermentation.

“We feel pretty strongly that for most food-based proteins, we would be able to read their DNA, write it ​[print DNA sequences], and place it in an appropriate organism to express it and secrete that protein."

He added: “We need to be thinking about alternate ways to produce healthy protein in a more efficient way – to produce protein without all the other things ​[the parts of crops and animals we don’t use],” added McIntyre, who has raised cash from a flurry of high-profile investors including Breakthrough Energy Ventures (a fund including Bill Gates and Jeff Bezo among its investors), Louis Dreyfus Company, dairy giant Fonterra, and Viking Global Investors.  

Synthetic-biology-GettyImages-Ankabala

What is synthetic biology? Gingko Bioworks​ (strapline: biology by design) co-founder Jason Kelly likens synthetic biology to computer programming, only with genetic sequences. DNA is effectively serving as a computer code (which can be now be printed surprisingly cheaply) that can be inserted into microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria so they express proteins, sweeteners, flavors, cannabinoids such as CBD, or basically whatever you have ‘coded’ or ‘instructed’ them to produce.  

The engineered micro-organisms will not be in the final product

Asked whether the ‘GMO factor’ could prove a barrier to Motif’s progress, he added: “We’ve had that pushback​ [on any foodstuff involving genetic engineering] for years now, but the conversation has to change.

“The microbes express the proteins and secrete them and we then recover them from the broth, but the​ [genetically engineered] micro-organisms will not be in the final product.”

‘The idea that technology may need to play a role in food is becoming more and more acceptable’

jonathan mcintyre
Jonathan McIntyre: 'The idea that technology may need to play a role in food is becoming more and more acceptable, and it’s coming from the places that started the clean food movement anyway, which is kind of interesting'

Instead of getting bogged down in questions about GMOs and Frankenfoods, what we should be asking is the following, he said: “What are the benefits to the consumer? Does it mean clean food? Does it mean great tasting food? Highly nutritious food? Environmentally sustainable food? And do you know exactly where it came from?”​ And these are all questions that Motif Ingredients can answer in the affirmative, he said.

“I’ve also seen that with​ [high-tech plant-based meat co] Impossible Foods​ and a dozen other companies, people are asking questions about how we are going to be able to optimize the ag food supply chain in a way that can feed 10bn people that all need protein.

“The idea that technology may need to play a role in food is becoming more and more acceptable, and it’s coming from the places that started the clean food movement anyway, which is kind of interesting.

“So let’s talk about what the technology is and what it does instead of trying to play a lot of games ​[over terminology such as synbio and GMOs]. Let’s just be clear and honest about what we’re doing.”

“To help feed the world and meet consumers’ evolving food preferences, alternative and traditional nutritional sources need to co-exist. As a global dairy nutrition company, we see plant- and fermentation-produced nutrition as complementary to animal protein, and in particular cows’ milk.”

Judith Swales, chief operating officer velocity & innovation, Fonterra

Strain engineering and optimization

motif ingredients-credit-KAREN-INGRAM
Picture: Karen Ingram

Powered by Ginkgo Bioworks’​ platform for biological engineering, Motif Ingredients​ will engineer dozens of proteins derived from dairy, egg, meat, and plants, but is not saying at this stage which ones it will commercialize first.

Asked whether Motif would be able to produce dairy proteins from genetically engineered microbes more efficiently than Bay area-based Perfect Day​ (which recently teamed up with ADM​), he said its approach was similar, but added that, “I thinkwe have specific advantages derived from the Gingko Bioworks platform’s capabilities on strain engineering and optimization.”

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