Triton woos plant-based meat makers with Non GMO source of heme, the secret sauce in the Impossible Burger

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

The Impossible Burger contains heme made from a genetically engineered strain of yeast, whereas Triton Algae Innovations is developing a Non GMO source. Picture: Impossible Foods
The Impossible Burger contains heme made from a genetically engineered strain of yeast, whereas Triton Algae Innovations is developing a Non GMO source. Picture: Impossible Foods

Related tags plant-based meat Algae

Triton Algae Innovations - a San Diego-based firm building a production platform for food proteins from algae - says it can produce heme (the red, meaty-tasting star ingredient in the Impossible Burger) without using genetic engineering, generating significant interest from plant-based meat brands seeking a Non GMO positioning.

Impossible Foods currently produces heme (an iron-containing molecule that “makes meat taste like meat”​) for its plant-based meats via a genetically engineered yeast, the DNA of which has been retooled to produce leghemoglobin (a protein found in nodules attached to the roots of nitrogen-fixing plants such as soy).

While no GMOs are in the final ingredient (the yeast is removed when the heme is harvested), the end product does not qualify for the coveted Non GMO Project Verified stamp.

How is Triton’s heme produced?

Triton, by contrast, uses UV light to stimulate its green algae strain Chlamydomonas reinhardtii ​to turn red and produce heme. It then uses traditional breeding techniques to create higher yielding varieties capable of producing more heme, Miller Tran, PhD, Triton cofounder and director of R&D, told FoodNavigator-USA.

While the UV alters the DNA of the algae, this is not classified as ‘genetic engineering’ and no genes from other species are introduced, explained Dr Tran, who pointed out that we alter the genome every time we breed plants using traditional breeding techniques, but they are not considered to be ‘genetically modified.’

Our algae strain -Chlamydomonas reinhardtii – can naturally produce heme, but it’s in the same pathway as chlorophyll, so it has a precursor that diverts into chlorophyll ​[which is green] or heme ​[which is red]."

By shining UV light on the algae cells, this effectively alters the pathway so the algae produces heme, he said. While this might sound ‘unnatural,’ it’s a widely used technique in plant breeding, he said, adding that UV light from the sun can also naturally induce mutagenesis in plants (ie. inducing mutations), creating new varieties of planTs with different qualities.

The heme can either be extracted out of the algae cells when they are harvested via fractionation, or firms may want to use the whole algae ingredient if they are also interested in some of the other components it contains, he added.

Triton red algae
Triton can produce heme from algae

Regulatory status

So what’s the regulatory status of heme produced from Chlamydomonas reinhardtii?

Impossible Foods, for example, spent a significant amount of time and money on putting together a GRAS determination for its heme, and following questions from the FDA chose to conduct more research and re-submit its determination, ultimately securing a ‘no questions’ letter​from the agency last summer. It has also filed a food additive petition​ covering the use of heme as a food color.

Most likely, Triton will put together a GRAS determination, said Dr Tran, but added: “We’re working through the regulatory nuances now, but Impossible Foods has definitely been the trailblazer in this regard and has laid down a pathway so that we can see what we need to do to accomplish the same thing in a much more efficient manner.”

Asked about labeling, this would depend on whether firms used the extracted heme alone, or the whole cell algae ingredient, he said.

Strong interest from plant-based meat companies

So how much interest has Triton had from plant-based meat companies?

We’re in discussions with several of them​,” said Dr Tran. “We’ve got samples companies can try now and we’re building a pilot facility in San Diego that will be able to produce 100 kilos of material in house, and eventually the plan is to move to a larger facility.”

Read more about Triton HERE.


FDA has no questions about Triton's GRAS determination 

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.

The protein-packed ingredient – which is attracting a lot of interest from the food and nutrition industry - has just secured a major regulatory boost, with Triton securing a no questions letter from the FDA regarding its GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) determination that the ingredient is safe to use in a variety of foods.

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.”​​

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