Is Bioengineered Collagen the Next Step in Replacing Animal Protein?

More than 90 percent of the collagen and gelatin on the market comes from pigs and cattle, a by-product of the slaughter industry. The goal of Geltor’s theoretical experiments was not just to make noise but to convince potential customers that they could make products that the current supply chain couldn’t. What if you are not restricted to the type of animal available for your collagen source? Dr. Lorestani remembers the question. He then proposed a mammal in particular, which Giltor settled on when creating his first: HumaColl21, which the company calls “a nearly colorless, odorless solution.”

In 2019, the Korean company AHC released an eye cream containing HumaColl21. Orora Skin Science, based in Canada, followed by creams and serums in 2021. In the past two years, Giltor has launched biosimilar marine collagen and human elastin (as the name suggests, a specially stretchable protein) for skin care, as well as poultry-like collagen intended for use in nutritional supplements. . Microbes growing in giant fermenters express each of these collagens, which are strained and purified into pure protein. “The protein is just like what you’ll find in the original source,” Dr. Loristani said. (The third-party IGEN certification program has confirmed that there is no detectable genetic material in the final product.)

A $91.3 million investment round in 2020 allowed Geltor to increase production from 35,000 liters in 2019 to 2.2 million liters in 2021, a relatively small amount. Small bottles of luxury eye creams require very little HumaColl21; Large shampoo bottles and jars of collagen powder require more. Enough gelatin to supply the Midwest’s Jell-O vegetable salads will require exponential growth.

Those limits determined the business path of the company. “The volumes of products required for beauty and personal care customers are different from what is required for food and nutrition customers,” said Dr. Loristani.

Despite all this investment, there are skeptics. Julie Guthman, a geoscientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz who investigates Silicon Valley’s forays into agriculture and food, questions the “magical disruption” behind the alternative protein industry’s promises.

“There’s an idea that if you produce a protein from cells or ferment it in a lab, it somehow keeps us away from producing wild meat,” she said. These companies still require energy, minerals, and food for the microbes themselves. She noted that there is little transparency in their environmental claims, because their patented processes are closely guarded secrets.

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