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Phytolon cofounders
Phytolon cofounders Halim Jubran, PhD (CEO); and Tal Zeltzer, PhD (CTO). Image credit: Phytolon

Phytolon plans US debut of ‘cost competitive’ natural food colors via precision fermentation

January 31, 2024

Israeli precision fermentation startup Phytolon aims to launch a broad range of vibrant natural colors produced by genetically engineered baker’s yeast in the US this year, pending regulatory approvals.

The move follows technical breakthroughs with partner Ginkgo Bioworks enabling it to optimize its strains to achieve titers it claims can make it cost competitive with natural colors extracted from plants, but with higher levels of purity, no off tastes, and a more sustainable, reliable supply chain.

With further optimization, claims cofounder and CEO Dr. Halim Jubran, betalain pigments produced by microbes in fermentation tanks could ultimately compete with synthetic dyes, which manufacturers are under increasing pressure to replace.

Extracellular expression

Phytolon’s platform, which is based on licensed technology from the Weizmann Institute of Science, utilizes two strains of baker’s yeast, one modified to secrete a water soluble yellow pigment and the other to secrete a water soluble purple pigment. Phytolon can then combine the two to produce a wide range of colors from vibrant reds and pinks to oranges that are stable across a wide pH range, Jubran told AgFunderNews.

“We use the same metabolic pathways to make the colors that you can find in beets or prickly pears.”

While some ingredients utilized by precision fermentation companies are produced within cells (intracellular expression), which have to be broken apart in order to extract the target substance, the yeast strains Phytolon is working with “spontaneously secrete” betalain pigments into the broth, said Jubran.

This means that downstream processing is cheaper because the colors can more easily be separated from the yeast biomass. It also ensures the final products do not contain traces of the host microbe, which can trigger bioengineered labeling in the US market and push firms down more challenging regulatory pathways in other geographies, he noted.

“We know that many innovators [in precision fermentation] are trying to engineer their cells to express the target ingredients outside of the cell [extracellular expression], but in our case, the pigments are spontaneously released, so we don’t have to coax then to do that.

Phytolon natural colors
Betalains are water-soluble pigments that retain color stability across a wide pH range. Image credit: Sarit Goffen

Partnership with DSM Firmenich

Phytolon, which was founded by Dr. Halim Jubran and Dr. Tal Zeltzer in 2018, has raised around $21m to date from backers including DSM Venturing, EIT Food, and Nextgen Nutrition Investment Partners. It recently struck a deal with ingredients giant DSM Firmenich to help commercialize and distribute its colors, but is also establishing direct relationships with CPG companies.

A color additive petition has been filed with the FDA, said Jubran, who hopes to get the green light to market its pigments in the US this year.

Labeling is still to be determined, but as the colors themselves are not GMOs (rather they are produced by GM baker’s yeast, which is filtered out of the final product) they will not be subject to bioengineered food labeling laws in the US, he said.

Phytolon has pilot facilities in-house but has struck a deal with a contract manufacturer to produce its pigments at industrial scale, said Zeltzer.  “We’ve proven that the technology is robust at scale; we’re already producing at tens of thousands of liters.”

Lower carbon footprint vs plant extracts?

Asked whether some food companies are hesitant about using natural colors produced via fermentation vs colors extracted from plants, Jubran claimed a growing number of companies don’t want vast tracts of agricultural land to be exploited for production of ingredients such as colors or high intensity sweeteners.

They also see the benefits of precision fermentation in terms of securing consistent supplies of product that can be produced closer to end markets, he claimed.

“Conversations that we had with big companies five years ago are very different to the conversations we’re having with them right now. Ingredients produced via this technology are becoming established.”

Natural food colors via precision fermentation

While genetically engineered microbes are now widely used to create a variety of ingredients from vitamins and enzymes to dairy proteins, the tech is still fairly new for producing food colors.

Lycored​​ and others have been using the fungus Blakeslea trispora to make beta-carotene for years, and DDW​ ​uses the microalgae Galdieria sulphuraria to produce blue colors. However, these microbes are not genetically engineered.

The best-known players producing colors from GM microbes are Impossible Foods​​ and Motif FoodWorks,​​ which deploy GM yeast to make soy leghemoglobin and myoglobin respectively, to impart a red color and a ‘meaty’ flavor to alt meat.

Meanwhile, Michroma ​​uses CRISPR to optimize filamentous fungi strains that produce stable red colors, although it is not yet on the market, while Debut ​​is working with DIC to develop color ingredients via a novel ‘cell-free’ biomanufacturing platform, which it claims could enable the biosynthesis of colors that are “hard to find or even inaccessible in nature.”

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