AI and plant biotech could produce sustainable omega-3 oils

The climate emergency and biodiversity crisis demand drastic institutional changes. Environmentalists are choosing more sustainable lifestyle options by flying less, working virtually or opting to invest in green projects rather than in fossil fuels.

We’ve also seen a sharp rise in veganism amidst findings that the meat industry is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss and one of the most significant contributors of greenhouse gases. (After recent biodiversity and climate change reports, I’ve also become a vegetarian.)

A particularly disruptive market in the sustainability sector has been the emergence of plant-based “meat” as a genuine and sustainable alternative to meat products. A recent survey found that over 40 percent of Americans have tried plant-based meat, which includes the Impossible Burger, made with protein from genetically modified (GM) soy. This is an indication of a changing trend, where people are becoming more accepting of GM food to adopt more sustainable practices.

However, the early days of agricultural biotechnology saw a severe backlash against GM crops as consumers questioned the safety and benefit of GM foods. “It stifled innovation and scarred the sector for decades,” recalls Dr Oliver Peoples, CEO of Yield10 Bioscience, a small agricultural biotech company in Massachusetts, USA.

The history of nearly three decades of safe use of GM crops is changing prospectives of consumers, and as a result, the market for GM food is getting more substantial. Peoples sees opportunities for genetic engineering tools to play a significant role in supplying healthy and nutritious food to a growing global population within the bounds of the environment.

Yield10 is applying cutting-edge synthetic biology tools in plants to develop technology that enables the production of sustainable agricultural alternatives. Using three decades of biotech knowledge, they fused artificial intelligence with synthetic biology to develop a technology platform, which identifies trait targets to produce better, higher-yielding plants.

Peoples — who grew up in a small, impoverished coal-mining village in central Scotland — wants to transform the sustainability sector with his company’s innovation. Yield10’s technology platform “GRAIN” (Gene Ranking Artificial Intelligence Network) helps identify gene targets to improve crop yield and bioproduct content.

The GRAIN technology relies on the fact that metabolic activity in plants can change trait, such as crop yield. And, of course, metabolism in plants are in turn controlled by different genes. The company uses artificial intelligence to mine billions of publically and privately available metabolism and genomic data points to identify genes that can be modified to improve crops.

Following the identification of gene targets by the GRAIN technology platform, the company applies biotechnology to improve crop yields, produce natural oils for human nutrition, and manufacture low-cost biodegradable plastic.

Yield10 uses plants to make their products. Peoples thinks that it doesn’t make economic sense to make natural products in large fermentation facilities due to energy inefficiencies and the cost associated with maintaining them.

“The only way to make natural products cost-effective is to produce them directly in crops: grow the plants, harvest the seeds and separate the product from the rest of the material.”

Peoples and his team have used genome editing technology to re-engineer photosynthesis in Camelina sativa (camelina) plants. As a result, the improved camelina varieties produce up to 130 percent more seed yield without any additional input. “It’s like we’re collecting double the rent for the same property; it’s great,” he says.

Aerial view of the C3003 field trial of Camelina sativa lines. Image credit: Yield10 Bioscience

Yield10 is also working with other big seeds companies like Bayer to develop soybeans, corn and canola. Still, their primary focus for nearly a decade has been in developing camelina seed oil. Peoples says that they see a lot of interest in camelina seed oil due to the presence of natural omega-3 fatty acid contents in their seeds.

Omega-3 are classes of very long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that benefit human health. Reports suggest that omega-3 oils help cardiovascular and cognitive health in humans. Our body is unable to produce omega-3, so we must get these fatty acids from our diets instead.

Wild fish has been the primary source of omega-3, and as the demands for fish oils has increased, so has overfishing. As unsustainable fishing practices have pushed several fish populations towards extinction, sustainable food supplies are desperately needed to meet consumer demands.

The company also used genome editing technology to develop camelina varieties with higher omega-3 oil content. “Key economic driver for the production of camelina is yield and oil content — and our plants have a higher oil content and produce greater seed yield. We’re developing technologies to allow us to become a market leader in this sector,” says Peoples.

He believes that the nutritional oil products from his camelina plants can provide a sustainable alternative to supplement the diminishing supply of fish oils. After successful field trials, the company is now upscaling the seed production to plant thousands of acres of camelina in the next growing season.

Peoples hopes that his nutritional oil products will turn camelina into a significant economic oil crop akin to canola. But he believes that the end goal must be to use the exciting innovation in genetic engineering technology to provide nutritious food for a growing global population.

I have not received any money from Yield10 Bioscience, its associates or anyone to write this blog. This article is not sponsored.

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