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FOOD

Biotech startup Ayana Bio wants to make junk foods healthy. Here’s how.

The company, which opened a lab in the Seaport last month, creates lab-grown plant materials for commercial use

Michelle McKee, a scientist at Ayana Bio, inspects growth of plants in the lab's hydroponic system.Ayana Bio

Most would agree that healthy Cheetos is an oxymoron. But according to biotech startup Ayana Bio, it doesn’t have to be.

The company is dedicated to creating lab-grown plant materials for use in food, drinks, dietary supplements, sports nutrition products, and, perhaps, cheese doodles. And in July, it announced the opening of a new laboratory in the Seaport.

“The reality is that most families, especially now with the cost of food skyrocketing, can’t afford to eat fresh food and have to reach for processed food,” said Ayana Bio’s CEO, Frank Jaksch. “There’s an obvious solution: fix processed foods so they include actual nutritional value.”

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The idea is this: If Ayana Bio can create a Brussels sprout powder, for example, containing all of the nutritional benefits of the child-averse vegetable, and then sell it to a snack food company for incorporation into its recipe, the guilt could be removed from guilty pleasures.

This concept is not entirely new. Companies have been creating plant powders for years (think matcha). But the difference is the ingredients Ayana Bio produces come from lab-grown plants rather than farmed plants.

Plant cells grow in test tubes in a sterile chamber at Ayana Bio. Ayana Bio

“Relying on stuff that’s grown in the ground has been a challenge as long as I’ve been in the natural product space,” Jaksch said, citing climate change, supply-chain issues, pesticide contamination, and lack of arable land as primary concerns. “We want to consistently deliver plant cell ingredients that are competitive with the agricultural-derived materials but solve all of those problems at the same time.”

Ayana Bio is not looking to replace commercial agriculture or “compete with the blueberries that are sold at produce stands,” Jaksch said. Rather, the startup wants to create plant derivatives that companies can incorporate into their recipes in addition to the ingredients they already buy.

Transforming the future of sustainable ingredients is just as complicated as it sounds. At Ayana Bio’s Seaport lab, a small team of scientists and engineers spend their days surrounded by hydroponic gardens and bioreactors to produce and scale their plant powders and extracts.

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The process begins with sterile source tissue, a small piece of a leaf, fruit, root, or shoot. It’s added to a petri dish where it grows a callus, or unorganized clump of plant cells. That callus is transferred to a liquid solution and mixed in a bioreactor until it reaches an applesauce-like state. Eventually, after some tests, scientists dry this solution out until it becomes a fine, beige powder, which is the final product.

“You sacrifice at most one plant, and then you create this cell line that you can propagate for years and years,” said Ayana Bio’s head of innovation, Weslee Glenn. “So you don’t need an entire farm to sustain this work.”

At the Seaport lab, the liquid from a 5-liter bioreactor yields just one small vial of powder, and to make it, scientists use equipment from Ginkgo Bioworks, a strategic partner with whom they share a building. But the hope is that the process will eventually be scaled up to produce commercial quantities.

Max Lloyd works with a bioreactor filled with growing plant cells at Ayana Bio in the Seaport. Ayana Bio

So far, Ayana Bio has launched two products, made from lemon balm and echinacea. The lab plans to release three more by the end of the year, choosing plants that are known to have health and wellness benefits or that are difficult to reliably obtain through traditional agricultural methods.

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“We go after plants where there’s a clear failure, whether that’s sustainability of supply or production cost,” Jaksch said.

He offered ginseng root as an example. It’s known to strengthen the immune system and ward off disease. But “it takes five to seven years to grow ginseng to the point when it can be harvested,” Jaksch said. “We can produce plant cells that are consistent with seven-year-old material in two weeks.”

According to scientists at the lab, the ingredients Ayana Bio yields have equivalent health and wellness benefits as their source plant counterparts, and in some cases higher concentrations of nutritional compounds. The startup is not focused on the organoleptic experience (taste, smell, etc.) of its products, though. Clients will have to handle flavor on their own.

“We’re making the ingredients, but companies could add them to capsules or tablets or gummies. They can be added into functional foods, beverages, bars, snacks, gels, and chewing gum. There’s been some interest in dissolvable strips. A number of these ingredients could even overlap with applications in cosmetics,” said Micah Sheppard, Ayana Bio’s head of product development.

A scientist inspects petri dishes with plant calli, or growing plant cells, at Ayana Bio.Ayana Bio

With so many possibilities, it makes sense that Ayana Bio is not the only lab doing this kind of work. Jaksch estimates that there are around 10 other labs in the country with a similar mission.

“From when I started a year ago to where we sit here right now, plant cell cultivation has been getting a lot more attention, and I expect that to continue,” he said. “It’s an elegant solution that is appealing to not only the companies that we’re talking to, but also to the consumers.”

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At an international conference on the science of botanicals in April, Glenn gave a talk about Ayana Bio’s work. He was overwhelmed by the positive response he received.

“People are very excited that you can produce this full spectrum of products without having to grow plants in the soil,” he said. “People see the power of that. The biggest challenge now is just one of imagination.”


Nicole Kagan can be reached at nicole.kagan@globe.com. Follow her @nicolekagan_.