‘Molecular farming’ startup Pigmentum, founded by Tal Lutzky, is producing a variety of high value food ingredients from casein proteins to vanillin in indoor growing systems using lettuce as a host, which grows more rapidly than soy and corn (the hosts of choice for some other startups in the field) and presents fewer regulatory issues and allergen concerns given that it can grow indoors, he told us.
But what kinds of yields can lettuce produce? “We currently get around 7g per kg per kilogram on a fresh weight basis, but our goal is to be around 2%, which is 20g per kg, which is pretty high," said Lutzky.
While testing microbial strains as hosts for high-value ingredients can be done pretty rapidly, the breeding process for plants such as lettuce can also be pretty efficient, claimed Lutzky.
“With plants, when you produce the first event of the transgenic plant you get a lot of different events, so each event gets the transgene in a different place on the genome, so we're trying to work out where is the best place to put it to get the best yields. And then you create seeds from the best performers and you create another generation.”
Pigmentum’s technology is founded on the inducible mechanism in transgenic plants. This means that the plant gene – which Pigmentum encodes to produce specific compounds – is ‘fully silent’ until it deploys an external agrochemical signal, he said.
“Our plants gain biomass and grow in natural, high rates. Only when we implement our agrochemical via an irrigation system or spraying do the plants respond with the hyperexpression of a specific desired compound.”
As for bioengineered labeling – which is triggered in the US if there is any detectible modified DNA in the final product – Pigmentum’s first products may trigger it, he said: “Our first product may contain some detectable modified DNA.”
In the best-case scenario, Pigmentum hopes to commercialize its first ingredient in 2025, said Lutzky, who is currently finalizing a seed round of funding.