April 25, 2022

The future of GMOs

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

The future of GMOs

According to Jacob Moe-Lange from California Cultured, and Natasha Haveman from the UF Space Plant Lab, genetically modified food is the future. Both discuss the way that food is grown and how that is changing. Jacob takes us through cell-cultured chocolate, and the environmental and humanitarian benefits. Natasha forces our gaze upwards to the plant experiments happening in spaceflight conditions, where scientists are learning how plants adapt to new environmental stresses.

In this episode, Dodi puts forward her argument that plants are better than Conor’s mycelium. Who will win out? Let’s see.


DODI: This year we've already talked about the possibility of living comfortably on Mars, as one does, with the help of mushrooms. And today, let's dive into some other ways of using and playing with organic material that could maybe be our future.

CONOR: Okay, so I'm guessing it's not more mycelium it's going to be something else.

DODI: Correct? Because enough of mushrooms for 2022 already Conor!

CONOR: No such thing, but anyway.

DODI: Okay, today we're going to talk to two different people who, in their own separate ways, think that genetic modification is the future.

CONOR: And that's what matters, I guess on today's episode.

DODI: This is Jacob Moe-Lange.

JACOB MOE-LANGE: I am a plant scientist and currently I work at a company called California Cultured.

CONOR: So, what exactly are they culturing?

DODI: Well, the company is all about the new age of sustainable and ethical food.

JACOB MOE-LANGE: We're interested in utilizing plant cell technology to start making some of these high value food products that we so enjoy, but due to climate change and other ethical reasons, are becoming more and more tenuous to sustainably get for consumers. So, right now our big product is looking at chocolate, of course, grown by cell culture. So, that's sort of what I'm doing right now.

CONOR: Okay, so there's a theme emerging here. We've talked about meat culture, we've talked about mycelium culture, we have an episode on cultured seafood coming up. So, we're talking about cultured plants here, and he wants to change specifically, chocolate?

DODI: Correct, and to do that, we looked at where Jacob has come from. Though he is Danish, he was raised in sunny California.

JACOB MOE-LANGE: I love California. I have lived in California for a long time, I live here with 40 million other people.

DODI: He says, he and the other 40 million people in California have started noticing some stuff.

CONOR: All right, just altogether. "Oh, what was that?"

DODI: Yeah, yeah. And he as a child, he was told that these kinds of things wouldn't happen for another 100 or 200 years.

CONOR: So, it’s not like "where's my jetpack"?

DODI: No, it's climate change.

JACOB MOE-LANGE: It's not raining anymore here, right. And we're a wealthy place in a wealthy country and we can deal with it. And even we are struggling to deal with it.

CONOR: So, the biggest thing is climate change, population pressures and so on, I imagine.

DODI: That is a huge part of why he started working at California Cultured, yes.

JACOB MOE-LANGE: Climate change is affecting our agricultural production in a way that I don't think we fully grasp. And it's going to change the way we do agriculture completely in the next 20 to 50 years, depending on how fast you know, it continues to devolve essentially. And so, one of the big issues here is that things like cacao, which is grown primarily in West Africa right now, at the expense of rainforests, and specifically, more importantly, virgin rainforests.

DODI: You only have to look at somewhere like the Ivory Coast, according to Jacob, to see the reality of climate change on rain forests,

JACOB MOE-LANGE: They've lost up to 80% or 85% of the rainforest since the 90s.

CONOR: Okay, that's insane. I just didn't even realize it was that big a decrease.

DODI: And you spent your youth in areas like this...

CONOR: I did I lived in the tropics for most of my early years, and the rainforest was part of my childhood. And the fact that it's disappearing is a real tragedy!

DODI: And shocking!

JACOB MOE-LANGE: And really, really important land that needs to be maintained as it is so that we can mitigate the very worst bits of climate change.

CONOR: So, I get the climate part. But you sort of hinted that there's more to it than just climate with California Cultured for Jacob.

DODI: Most certainly. So, Jacob was describing one of the biggest problems we have right now is that a lot of agriculture is clonal based, which in turns mean that there's low genetic diversity.

JACOB MOE-LANGE: You will also have increased or changed geographic distributions of pests and diseases, which means that you have decreased genetic diversity, increased pathogen or disease loads or pest loads. And so, they're going that together. We're basically looking at a future where we cannot grow the things that we need to make chocolate in the field.

CONOR: Okay, you know, the plants that we grow commercially are all cloned.

DODI: Right, you know, like bananas. It's all same banana we eat.

CONOR: Okay. And so, what he's saying here is that chocolate is just not worth it?

DODI: Kind of and, you know, of course it's worth focusing on rice, corn, wheat, the staples. We will die if we're not eating those things. But when it comes to chocolate, maybe there's another way.

JACOB MOE-LANGE: Chocolate is unsustainable and unethical as it's currently being done. And it's because it's a huge complex supply-chain. And one of the biggest problems is that the urbanization in West Africa, which primarily has basically decreased the labor pool. So, children and slave labor are being driven and use to harvest the chocolate that we eat and love. And that's a big problem. So, you know, you take the real daunting challenge of climate change, and you take sort of the longer-term labor challenges and also, you know, if you're a consumer, you should be doing right when you're eating a piece of chocolate, and not doing wrong. And I think that idea, I think, is really tantalizing for the consumer to really be pushing, if we could have a product that really challenged those two issues. And that's what we think we can do at California Cultured.

CONOR: Okay, that's cool. Of course, you know, we talk about bioprocessing all the time here at Cytiva. We love bioprocessing, that you can take a cell culture and grow protein or cells, and extract from it through harvesting, you know, whatever you might want to grow and express in that, in that cell culture. But food is turning into a real, you know, theme this series. And of course, one of the challenges is public and consumer perception of lab grown meat as it's been described, and so on. So, you know, is this going to have a challenge for the consumer when we're talking about chocolate that doesn't come from a cocoa bean.

JACOB MOE-LANGE: This is a really challenging topic, because as a scientist, I love GMOs. I think GMOs are the future, I think there's no future in which we survive and we're not all eating GMOs on a daily basis. That's the future full stop, because traditional breeding cannot keep up with the change in the climate, the rate is just too fast, we need to be able to develop things much faster than we currently can. That said, people don't really want to eat GMO products, you can't change you know, you can't move mountains sometimes. And that's just the way it is.

DODI: This is where Jacobs love for plants kicks in.

JACOB MOE-LANGE: They are immortal and totipotent. And so, what that means is that if you give them the right combination of things, nutrients, hormones, they'll grow literally indefinitely. They have no timer on their cells, which is very different than say mammalian cells, you can take a cell from a living cell from any part of any plant you can put it on a petri dish, and you give the right sugars, hormones and nutrients, you can turn that cell into anything else, any other plant cell.

CONOR: So, he used a word that we're familiar with from stem cells. Totipotent, it's difficult to say.

DODI: I had to ask him about it. It's not in my everyday language. And its direct translation is that it is capable of giving rise to any cell type or complete embryo.

JACOB MOE-LANGE: It can become anything you want it to become. And what that means is that we're basically taking cells that have already become mature tissues, we're de-differentiating them. And that's really the key concept is this de-differentiation step. And then through de-differentiation, we basically bring him back to a stem cell like identity. Then we ask these stem cells to divide indefinitely. And then if we want them, we can add small molecules or stressors, and we can push them metabolically in certain directions that can then help us get some of these chocolate flavors or some of these special metabolites in chocolate that we're interested in.

CONOR: But chocolate is already a plant, right? So, what was he talking about? Is he talking about creating a different kind of chocolate plant? Sorry, does it taste like chocolate?

DODI: There is a scientific answer to that because they are measuring scientifically how taste can be compared. Do you think that taste is subjective? It's not it's scientific.

CONOR: So, there's a chocolate-ometer?

DODI: Yes, and it has to get to 12.

CONOR: Yeah, it's 12 pieces of chocolate-ometer? What's the scale here?

JACOB MOE-LANGE: That's what's crazy to me! We are able to make an equivalent product to a lot of the chocolate that's available out there, maybe we can't compete quite yet with the premium super special chocolate . But I think that in terms of a lot of the bulk chocolate that's available out there, we are at par if not better at this point. We've gotten some chemical analysis back and it's crazy, we've actually been able to find that the cultivars that we have grown in cell culture, their cells that were growing strongly resemble the cultivars themselves go in the field. And so, I think that's a really, really powerful reminder that we can get there, and we just need to keep pushing at it.

CONOR: Okay, so this is pretty cool. This is guilt-free chocolate in every sense of the word.

DODI: For you. You know, how I am.

CONOR: I know, so what about the choco-phobes?

DODI: Turns out I'm not alone, I asked Jacob this same question.

JACOB MOE-LANGE: Really, secretly, I'm more of a creme brûlée guy!

DODI: I love that! He's devoted to chocolate and...

CONOR: He's a creme brûlée guy! Yeah, we should talk about creme brûlée one day.

DODI: Oh yes lets! Now it's time to hear from somebody else who sees genetic modification as the future, but this time the future is cosmic.

NATASHA HAVEMAN: Okay, so my name is Natasha Haveman, I am a researcher at the University of Florida. What I do is a myriad of different spaceflight experiments, plant biology experiments, plant molecular biology experiments, basically to understand, in essence, how plants respond to the novel environment of space.

DODI: Natasha rivals Jacob, in her love for all things plants.

NATASHA HAVEMAN: Plants have had their entire evolution on Earth, where they've basically developed all sorts of mechanisms to deal with changes in their environment. So, plants, unlike us, can't leave and walk away. So, they have over, you know, millennia have developed mechanisms to deal with bright lights, to do with heat, to deal with pests, and to deal with all sorts of environmental stresses.

DODI: During her work, Natasha wanted to see what happens when you take plants away from these evolutionary environments, that she was talking about, and just brings them into a new place.

CONOR: Okay, so we're not talking about taking plants from outside and bringing them into your living room. We're talking about, and we're going to get a rocket and shoot them into the sky.

DODI: That's right.

NATASHA HAVEMAN: What happens when there's no gravity? How do they respond? Is the response the same? Is it slightly different? Or will they just stress out and die? So basically, over the years, decades actually, we've grown plants in space, we've learned that they do well, but they also experienced different stress. And stress doesn't have to have a bad connotation. You know, stress can be just a different way of dealing with their new novel environment.

DODI: And an example now of Natasha's work is looking into microgravity light.

NATASHA HAVEMAN: Plants grow on Earth. You have light and the roots grow away from light. Basically, they are called negatively phototrophic. They grow away from the light sources and gravity helps them sink down to the gravitational pull. And so, in microgravity, you don't have that gravitational pull, what happens is they use light as the next best cue to figure out their environment. And so, these are little things here and there that we are learning, and that we are understanding, and then also now we're looking at what kind of genes are turned on and turned off in in the in the spaceflight environment and how we can understand the pathways that they are using. So, that we can you know, figure out better strategies to help them adapt to this novel environment

CONOR: So, the endgame here is what? The sort of being able to grow plants on interstellar voyages like you see in science fiction, sometimes in like movie series, like the Martian, is that right?

NATASHA HAVEMAN: Humans are just really curious beings, right? We want to explore, we want to go beyond the reaches, and as far as we can travel, and so we will be exploring our universe, we'll be exploring our solar system. And we want to know when we do go to different planet, what's the main thing we need to take with us? That is food, and plants. They are just so remarkable because not only do they provide us with food, but they also provide us with oxygen, and they help create a sustainable environment for us to thrive and live in. And so, they are so versatile.

CONOR: So, we have been as humans growing plants in space, there is a field of astrobiology. So, you know, where are we with that now?

NATASHA HAVEMAN: We have been growing them in space for decades, from wheat, to rice, to potatoes, to oh my goodness, so many different things like basil and Arabidopsis. So, Arabidopsis is basically what we use in the lab in general, because that's kind of like the white mouse of the plant world, basically. We have gotten a bunch of plants, and astronauts have only in the last decade, started consuming them. One first we need to know can plants survive in the space that environment.

CONOR: Okay, so let's get back to the work that she's doing on modifying plants for this.

DODI: Sure. And I wondered if Natasha could foresee ever taking a bioreactor up into space. You know, as we had Cytiva, we had so much love to see that go into a rocket and be shoved out into space, to maybe grow food in a sterile environment, grow medicine in a sterile environment, anything. So, like Jacob, Natasha shares the philosophy that anything is possible if you put your genetically modified back, and sweat, and blood, and tears into it!

CONOR: You've just got to try it, right?

NATASHA HAVEMAN: Genetically modified food is sort of the way to go. Only because, you know, if we want to grow plants on Martian regolith, or lunar regolith, we are we are now realizing that there are a lot of components within those regoliths, that does impact how plants grow, their health, and everything. And so, we have to be able to kind of look at all those genes that we have been studying now for decades, figure out what will help them in those environments. And then, by enhancing those genes, we can, you know, allow them to go healthy and be productive for all the foods. So, genetically modified food and plants are definitely where we are headed, there's still a lot of things that we have to iron out. Like, for example, if we do create a genetically modified variety of plums, we need FDA approval, we need all sorts of paperwork and all that kind of stuff, it’s still in the works, we don't really have a sound pipeline to get those things off and running just yet. So, there's a lot that we have to still kind of work around.

DODI: Before we say goodbye, Natasha wanted to emphasize that this whole thing is an ongoing communal experiment. And you know, she's totally comfortable in that environment.

CONOR: Fantastic.

NATASHA HAVEMAN: Nothing is set in stone just yet. Everything is still very dynamic. And people are having all sorts of conversations about how to improve growth methods, how to select for crops, how to select for natural varieties instead of genetically engineering them. There is so much that this community is trying to figure out and so there might be certain things that one person might drive towards, but you know, somebody else is working on another direction and alternatives. So, it will be fun. It'll be exciting to see what the future brings.

DODI: Alright. So, if this were to come down to a showdown between mushrooms and plants, I'm going to go with plants.

CONOR: Okay, but so look, the honest truth is there would be no plants had we not had mycelial glop at the very, very beginning.

DODI: So, it's the glop that wins?

CONOR: Yeah, the mycelial glop is going to win every time. So, we'll have to agree to disagree on that one.

DODI: Our executive producer is Andrea Kilin, and this podcast is produced with the help of Bethany Grace Armitt-Brewster, who maybe should get one more name for the next episode?

CONOR: I think that's probably a good idea, isn't it? Editing and mixing is by Tom Henley and Banda Produktions.

DODI: My name is Dodi Axelson.

CONOR: I almost read your line. And my name is Conor McKechnie. Make sure you rate us on Spotify or whichever platform you use. And we'll see you when we come back with another episode of Discovery Matters.

DODI: Hey, if you can't get enough of plants or mushrooms in space, we highly recommend Gardeners of the Galaxy podcast hosted by Emma the space gardener. She guides you as you explore cultivating the cosmos, planting planets, and sowing seeds in space.

CONOR: Try and say that three times quickly, so check it out on your preferred listening platform.

DODI: Gardeners of the Galaxy.

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