Pioneer company introduces new biotechnology – University of Copenhagen

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22 September 2016

Pioneer company introduces new biotechnology

Biotechnology

A new way of farming is finding its way to the Danish biotech industry through the rising company TychoBio, which in collaboration with the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences will introduce the production of valuable and rare chemical compounds through the use of mosses. This light-driven biosynthesis brings many years’ worth of research out of the lab and provides an alternative to previous petroleum-based and space consuming processes.

By Natasja Lykke Corfixen

The non-vascular mosses grow naturally in dark and moist places. This makes the plants suitable for production in liquid cultures. Photos: Josephine Schrøder (Copyright).

Chemicals with preservative, medical and many other properties are found in numerous products that we use to improve our everyday lives. Many of these originate from natural sources such as plants and are produced by either harvesting them directly from the plant or by organic synthesis. The upcoming company TychoBio aims to introduce a more sustainable light-driven biosynthesis by mosses into the industrial production of such chemicals:

“Today the majority of our worlds chemicals, in which there are 80,000 in common use, are synthesized from oil-derivatives,” cofounder Will Wright opens, “The larger vision of TychoBio is to provide an alternative to chemical production.”

However some chemical compounds are almost impossible to produce in traditional ways due to insufficient yields. Terpenoids, which are specialized plant metabolites, are of distinct interest to the new company as these aromatic compounds have many interesting applications among others as flavors and fragrances:

“The compounds, that we specialize in, are very hard to synthesize. So our intention is for this new platform to allow for the production of high-value compounds that are otherwise endangered in their natural production,” Will Wright adds.  

The innovative founders constantly look for more efficient and environmentally sustainable methods of optimizing the production. The main way of doing this is to introduce naturally occurring genes into CO2-neutral mosses and optimize the growth conditions to make the highest possible yield.  

The mosses are grown on a solid fundament
10 years of research from the University of Copenhagen has made a solid foundation for the establishment of the company. Transformation-associated recombination, which is a way of method that has previously been used to introduce new genes into yeast, was discovered to be directly applicable on the moss species, Physcomitrella patens. This gives moss the advantage of being the only known plants in which this method can be used in turning the moss into basic biological machinery for the production process, a chassis: 

“TychoBio is able to take the tools from the natural production organisms and put them into a synthetic biology chassis, in this case moss. Typically organisms like yeast are used for the chassis, but we are one of the few examples of using plants, and mosses have a lot of advantages, being a lower plant,” cofounder and Postdoc Brian Christopher King explains.

Biosynthesis by other organisms has for a long time been a part of industrial production, but the use of non-vascular mosses opens up for new opportunities within the field. The mosses have the ability to artificially synthesize compounds that would be toxic for other small organisms such as yeast and bacteria:

“Many of the compounds that we are trying to synthesize are antifungal or antibacterial, which can cause problems for other chassis, so the real strength of using the moss as chassis is producing the plant derived compounds within a plant host,” Will Wright says, “Moss provides a relatively clean genetic background, which is more stable to work with compared to organisms such as cyanobacteria,” he adds.

Bringing the science out of the lab
AgroTech in Taastrup will provide some of the facilities that will bring the company to life and the bioreactors in which the synthesis will take place are now being tested with a wild type of P. patens. Upscaling the production here is a step on the way to transform the moss production from fundamental science to applied science.

Bioreactors for moss growth in AgroTech, Taastrup. Photo: TychoBio.

“We are taking the science from the lab into commercial application where it can be used in an industrial scale,” Will Wright says, “What we see as our part in process is the discovery and optimization of the pathways and the establishment of moss as an industrial platform.”

The aim of the company is to provide the onsite expertise that is needed to get moss production up and running. Both optimization of the chemical pathway within the plant as well as the knowledge needed to upscale the production is part of what is build up in TychoBio. 

Mosses are already on their way forward in Germany where the production primarily concerns large chemical compounds such as proteins. Here the moss is used for the production of human therapeutics, which has now reached the human-trial phase. But what TychoBio aims to do differ from this by being focused on smaller molecules:

“I would say we are the second company using moss and the first one producing small molecules,” Brian King concludes.