The firm - which has staff in the US, Argentina, the UK, and the Netherlands, and is initially targeting the North American market – has the capability to express a variety of animal proteins in plants, from egg albumin in wheat, to whey in oats.
Its first products - a nutritional oil containing gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), and chymosin (an enzyme used in cheese-making that was historically sourced from calf rennet and is now routinely made via genetically engineered microbes in fermentation tanks) - are produced by genetically engineered safflower plants, said co-founder and CEO Gaston Paladini.
“We have the chymosin and GLA from safflower already and we are in the scale up stage with these two products."
‘There are plenty of different proteins and molecules in meat that nobody has explored yet’
Next, Moolec is targeting the meat alternatives market with ingredients from yellow pea and soy crops that have been modified to produce bovine and porcine proteins in addition to regular plant protein, Paladini told FoodNavigator-USA.
“We are focusing on proteins from the blood and the muscles of animals that can improve taste, nutrition, flavor, coloring... the organoleptic properties and texture of meat alternatives.”
Asked whether he was talking about meaty-tasting proteins such as myoglobin, which Motif FoodWorks is expressing in a genetically engineered strain of yeast, he said: “There are plenty of different proteins and molecules in meat that nobody has explored yet.
“We want to replicate the whole experience using plants not only as a host to produce a particular meat molecule, but we also want to combine the matrix of the plant proteins and these [animal] proteins,” which might mean a soy protein isolate that also contains bovine protein, or a yellow pea protein that also contains porcine proteins, for example.
“We want to combine the foreign molecules with the bulk plant protein. We're not modifying the natural and native soy proteins of the plant with the addition of the animal proteins, so we’ll be selling, say, soy protein isolate with real meat protein inside.”
‘The key KPI is the level of expression’
Moolec is also looking at plants that can express animal ingredients that could enable meat alternative firms to replace methyl cellulose, a highly functional, but not very consumer-friendly, ingredient many brands would remove from formulas if they could, said Paladini.
He added: “The key KPI is the level of expression. How much expression can we get of these foreign molecules inside the bean, so in parallel we’re looking at lots of different molecules and traits. Maybe in future we could get multiple different molecules inside the same bean, but that's not what we are doing right now. For now, we are focused on one [animal] molecule in each plant.”
Meanwhile, crops with a "lower or higher expression of a foreign animal molecule have different routes into the market," he explained.
"For example, protein fractions can be concentrated in such a way that the target protein is either concentrated along with the plant protein matrix or in a way that it can be easily removed from the mix.
"It is also possible that with higher level of expressions, that certain lower value applications where less refinement is needed will become more attractive. In any case, multiple routes into the market are being investigated and tied to specific expression levels."
‘For molecular farming, the infrastructure is already there’
But why is molecular farming more efficient than genetically engineering microbes to express animal proteins in bioreactors via precision fermentation, as The EVERY Co, Geltor, Perfect Day et al are doing?
It all depends on the protein, said Paladini, who recently teamed up with pharma co Grupo Insud to form a precision fermentation joint venture using microbes such as yeast and fungi to express proteins and other ingredients in tanks.
“The main challenges for precision fermentation right now are scale and cost,” said Paladini, “as they still have a kind of pharma infrastructure. For molecular farming, the infrastructure is already there, the soybean growers are already there, you just need to switch the seeds. We are leveraging biology and sunlight, whereas bioreactors need a huge amount of energy.”
He added: "It can make sense to use precision fermentation for specific proteins in specific applications, but the market will still be limited to high value applications in premium markets."
No need to modify the downstream process: ‘We can recover the foreign molecules (eg. the ‘animal’ proteins) together with the plant protein’
As for downstream processing, he said, “We are proving with our own pilot plants and partnerships, that we could use the same infrastructure, recovering both [plant and animal proteins] without modifying the current downstream process. We can recover the foreign molecules (eg. the ‘animal’ proteins) together with the plant protein.”
Clearly one advantage of using microbes over plants, however, is at the R&D phase, when rapid iteration is the name of the game, he acknowledged (it takes days to see if yeast or bacteria expresses a protein, whereas peas and soybeans grow rather more slowly, which means you have to run a lot of tests in parallel).
“We're talking about biology here, so it will take longer, but it’s totally worth it.”
The business model: ‘We are in active conversations with potential partners’
Asked about the business model, he said, “We are in active conversations with potential partners such as ingredient processing companies that are interested in our technology, so we have the option to license our IP, or to work with them in the downstream processing stage to recover the proteins and use their networks to commercialize them.
“In some markets it might make sense to outsource the downstream process and commercialize products directly to food producers, so we are very flexible to adapt our model to different territories.
“We are also shaping agreements directly with food producers to prototype our products in their pilot plants and in commercial formulas, so we are learning a lot.”
Terminology: ‘We are producing real animal products so it's not exactly ‘animal free’
On labeling - a thorny issue given the paradoxical nature of the endeavor, producing animal proteins… without animals - Paladini said: “We are producing real animal products so it's not exactly ‘animal free,’” a term popularized by some players making dairy products featuring casein produced by microbes instead of cows.
“I would prefer cruelty-free," said Paladini, "but we need to start thinking about this as an industry. Is it plant-based [which could confuse consumers, especially with allergies], or plant-made [which may be accurate, but may not be very clear]? We definitely need to be transparent with the final consumer.
“In our case, our [meat] proteins are not allergenic, so we may not have the same issue as with the dairy proteins [produced via microbial fermentation, which must feature milk allergen warnings], but we still need to say in a very straightforward way, this is a real animal protein made in a cruelty-free way.”
Moolec, which is part of the new ‘GM4GOOD’ initiative, which advocates the use of genetic modification technologies in the agri-food value chain, describes its wares as "proudly genetically modified," he said.
“We believe we need to start educating, communicating and informing consumers and the industry, about the benefits not only of modified plants, but all kinds of applications, including precision fermentation,” added Paladini, who said he hoped a new generation of consumers would take a more nuanced view of GM technologies, which had myriad applications in the food industry well beyond traditional herbicide tolerance or disease resistance.
Go to market strategy, regulatory: ‘We didn’t start from scratch’
As for the regulatory pathway forward, Paladini acknowledged that the GMO factor presented challenges in some markets, but added: “We’re having conversations with regulators, but we already have two products approved [he highlighted the safflower-derived products and noted that the team that formed Moolec had been working on the technology for a decade before it was spun off from agri-tech co Bioceres Crop Solutions].
“So we’re not the typical startup; we didn't start from scratch… when we started [in the fall of 2020], we already had more than 20 patents.
"Based on our GLA safflower experience for GRAS approval, we have a clear understanding of what are the steps to follow in achieving a successful regulatory pathway."
From a geographical perspective, he said, “We are focusing on North America, Mexico, and the United States, where we have partnerships with third parties in greenhouses and laboratories including at Washington State University. Compared with the EU, the United States is a GM friendly country and we are proudly making GMOs. But we still believe there is a chance we could have our products in parts of Europe.”