Home Tech The Plan to Put Pig Genes in Soy Beans for Tastier Fake Meat

The Plan to Put Pig Genes in Soy Beans for Tastier Fake Meat

by Elijah
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The Plan to Put Pig Genes in Soy Beans for Tastier Fake Meat

For Gastón Paladini, pork is a family affair. In 1923, his great-grandfather Don Juan Paladini moved from Italy to Santa Fe, Argentina, where he began putting a South American twist on classic Italian sausage recipes. Eventually, Don Juan’s company became one of Argentina’s largest meat producers. It still bears the family name: Paladini.

But in 2020, Gastón had the kind of heretical thoughts that would make his ancestors blush. What if you could capture the essence of pork – that meaty, umami sweetness – and put it into a plant? Paladini’s imagination ran wild with thoughts of a soybean dripping blood: a chimera that packed the flavor of pork into a seedling.

Today Paladini is the CEO of Moolec science, a molecular farming company that uses crops to grow animal proteins. The idea is to turn plants into small, field-based factories that can produce high-quality proteins and other molecules that can be used to supplement existing products, or add meaty vigor to plant-based foods. “This is the real deal. These are real meat protein molecules,” says Paladini.

In June 2023, Moolec revealed that it had inserted pig genes into soy plants to create soybeans that expressed pig proteins. The experiments were conducted in the company’s greenhouses in Wisconsin. In some soybeans, more than a quarter of the soluble proteins were identified as porcine. It’s not quite the bleeding soybean he initially imagined, but Palidini was still impressed with the amount of pork protein his soybeans seemed to produce. The beans have a pink hue and a meaty taste, he says, although the company is still waiting for a full analysis of their nutritional qualities. Next year, Paladini hopes to take the soybeans to field trials in Wisconsin.

Plant-based meat companies may be particularly interested in animal proteins grown in this way. In the US, sales of plant-based products are stagnating, while there are signs that consumers are unimpressed by these cruelty-free offerings. With trust wavering, more and more startups are hoping to create the killer ingredient that will allow plant-based sausages and burgers to compete with their meaty counterparts. Australian startup Nourish uses genetically engineered yeast to produce animal fatswhile UK-based Hoxton Farms gets fat of real animal cells in bioreactors.

“Personally, I believe the plant-based industry has slowed down because the cost, flavor and taste are good, but not good enough,” Paladini says. “The plant-based companies still need to improve taste and texture and reduce costs.”

Improving plant-based meat isn’t the only area Paladini has his eye on. In fact, he is more interested in the trillion-dollar global meat market. It’s an inconvenient truth that many meat products contain a surprisingly small proportion of actual meat. In Britain, for example, sausages only need to contain 42 percent pork to qualify for the “pork sausages” label. The rest are flavors and fillers, which often contain proteins from soybeans. Blending a meatier soybean could improve these products while keeping costs down, says Paladini, who co-founded Moolec after a career in marketing. Moolec, a spinout of biotech company Bioceres Crop Solutions, is also working on pea plants containing beef proteins and safflowers modified to produce one of the key enzymes that help milk coagulate into solid cheese.

One of the reasons Moolec is focusing on soy and peas is because huge markets already exist for these commodities. Rather than introducing people to a brand new ingredient, Paladini hopes they will respond better to a slightly modified version of a crop they are already familiar with. However, because the plants Moolec is working on contain genetic material from at least two different species, they will fall foul of rules in Britain and the EU that strictly regulate genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Paladini hopes this will be less of a problem in Argentina and the US, where Moolec also has offices and where regulators take a much more relaxed stance on genetically modified foods. “Sooner or later I think we have to embrace science,” he says.

This article first appeared in the January/February 2024 edition of WIRED UK.

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