High Value Chemicals from Plants Annual Meeting 2018

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Published on: October 3, 2018
Naomi Nakayama discusses plant cell factories

The final annual meeting in Phase I of the BBSRC-funded HVCfP NIBB network was held on October 1st in the delightful Royal College of Physicians, close to Regents Park in London. This single day meeting was a byte-size mix of invited talks and those provided by researchers who had received Proof of Concept (PoC) or Business Interaction Voucher (BIV) funding from the network.

From a GARNet perspective it was gratifying to hear presentations that included preliminary work conducted in Arabidopsis, demonstrating the importance of model organisms in the development of ideas that can lead to industrial biotechnology projects. Naomi Nakayama from the University of Edinburgh described her labs work aimed at optimising use of Arabidopsis cell cultures as well as in developing plant stem cells as ‘single cell factories’. Secondly Peter Eastmond from Rothamsted Research described the initial characterisation of the Sugar Dependent1 hydrolase enzyme that they are now developing as a potential industrial biocatalyst.


Paul Fraser from RHUL and Mike Roberts from Lancaster University introduced very different research projects that both use tomato plants. Long-term establishment of RIL lines have allowed the Fraser lab to identify tomato plants with increased levels of B-carotene in the fruit. This project has similarity to other attempts at vitamin A biofortification yet takes advantage of many years expertise working specifically with this plant. These B-carotene fortified lines are now ready for the field and should be particularly important in regions with high food insecurity and vitamin A deficiency.

Mike Roberts has a nascent industrial collaboration with greenhouse tomato producer APS Salads. Their soil-free growth of tomatoes generates a large amount of waste biomass, which is currently used for a variety of applications that rely on downstream anaerobic decomposition. It is known that mechanical disruption of plant tissue causes the release of protective defence chemicals so the Roberts lab have used HVCfP BIV funding to investigate whether macerated tomato waste has protective anti-pathogen properties. The initial characterisation of liquid fractions taken from the waste pipeline have given promising protective effects indicating that the mechanical disruption of the tissue generates an as-yet-unknown defense-promoting compound.

Michael Marsden discusses co-products, not plant waste.

On a related note, Michael Marsden provided an invited talk and asked delegates to re-think the idea of ‘plant waste’. His company AB Connect labels waste as ‘co-products’ and it was extremely informative to learn about all the possible uses of crop co-products across a range of industries. However there certainly remains additional potential in this area as technologies continue to develop for degradation of cellulosic material and improvement of manufacturing pipelines.


Sweet smelling success story of Oxford BioTrans.

Jason King from Oxford Biotrans provided the opening invited talk that was a real success story of activities that have taken place since he last presented at the 2015 annual HVCfP meeting. Their main product is the grapefruit flavour nootkatone that they produce from oranges using patented P450 enzymes. This industrial project was recently highlighted as a success story by the BBSRC. Oxford BioTrans are now investigating options for producing a range of other products using their set of novel P450s. Pleasingly Jason King reported that they have not had significant difficulties in obtaining funding for this project both from national funding bodies and local angel investors.


The afternoon invited speakers provided a different perspective on some wider issues surrounding the research environment. Kelly Vere is working with the Science Council on the establishment of the Technicians Committment, which is an initiative to provide recognition for the vital yet often underappreciated support provided by technical staff in higher education. Over 50 universities have signed up to the charter and many are taking steps to provide this extra support.


Alison Prendiville (University of the Arts London) and Sebastian Fuller (St George’s, University of London) described their involvement with the EU-funded Pharma-Factory project. This involves the input of numerous stakeholders associated with the use of the products generated by plant-based biofactories. These include potential patients, clinicians, regulators and researchers. They described how they are using the process of co-design to create partnerships that take into account stakeholder priorities in order to facilitate new methods of knowledge exchange. Intuitively it seems that this type of project might be challenging for bench scientists to fully appreciate so it will be interesting to observe where this project leads and to learn about their conclusions.


Due to the obvious links between the GARNet community and the type of PoC/BIV projects funded by the HVCfP network, the GARNet coordinator has attended and participated in a number of HVCfP events over the past four years. Although this annual meeting only highlighted a small set of supported projects it seems clear that the HVCfP network has succeeded in bringing together academics and industrial partners as well as supporting research in its early stages.

The decision regarding Phase II of the NIBBs will be announced over the next month so hopefully this plant-based network will gain follow-on funding to continue the progress they have made during Phase I.

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