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Future Fields uses fruit fly-based proteins for cultivated food, medicines

Jalene and Matt Anderson-Baron, co-founders of Future Fields, examine a vial. (Courtesy Future Fields)

Edmonton-based Future Fields is hoping to create a world with sustainable and affordable cultivated foods and medicines using genetically engineered fruit flies.

Founded in 2018 and fully taking off in 2019, Future Fields is led by the husband-and-wife team of Matt and Jalene Anderson-Baron, who are both University of Alberta graduates. He acts as chief executive, while she is the chief operating officer.

Future Fields started as a cultivated meat company in response to environmental concerns about traditional agriculture. Its first iteration developed a solution for bottlenecks related to the use of bioreactors – part of the process involved in growing cultivated meat.

The concept did not take off, however, due to the high costs of developing recombinant proteins (lab-assembled proteins from other organisms) for cell culture media. Ultimately, it stalled out at a “nugget-shaped mass of chicken cells” prototype.

While seeking a resolution to that issue, they had a conversation one day as they stood in a lineup for coffee and donuts. Jalene offered Matt – who was completing his doctorate in cellular and molecular biology at the time – a different perspective on the fruit flies he was tinkering with as part of his degree.

She asked, “Why don’t we use fruit flies?" to help create the proteins. It became the spark of the idea the couple "ran with."

The EntoEngine

Future Fields turned the idea conceived during that coffee run into a platform they dubbed the “EntoEngine.”

Jalene Anderson-Baron said Future Fields made the pivot because it could have more environmental impact in a bigger market.

Fruit flies, she said, are a great model organism because of the abundance of genetic tools made available by decades of intensive research.

EntoEngine starts by identifying a protein of choice, then the protein's DNA sequence is injected into the genetic code of a fruit fly.

If the protein can be successfully harvested, the fly stock is expanded and the larvae are harvested. A generation of fruit flies takes about 10 days to reach the harvesting stage.

After the larvae are harvested, the protein is extracted and purified. Future Fields validates the protein function and performs quality and safety testing. If it meets its standards, the protein can be shipped.

The proteins are stable strains, meaning future generations will continue to produce the protein of choice.

New foods and medicines produced sustainably

With the recombinant proteins it creates, Future Fields is aiming to accelerate the viability of cell-based fields such as cultivated meats, and medical research.

But existing bioreactor technology has not been updated for decades, Jalene Anderson-Baron said, which limits the options available in synthetic biology due to the needs for scalability, cost and sustainability.

“We are hoping to unlock, basically, synthetic biology and society’s ability to manufacture a growing number of crucial products,” she said, noting the growing synthetic biology industry is held back by a lack of infrastructure to produce products at scale.

Jalene Anderson-Baron notes the company does not actually create the edible proteins and medical uses. It creates biomolecules which, in turn offer a hospitable environment for cells to grow and form into the bioproducts.

Current technology to produce recombinants rely on energy- and waste-intensive bioreactors. Future Fields’ fruit fly-based platform requires less water, energy and land use by comparison, she said.

Though she could not disclose figures due to an ongoing life-cycle analysis, Jalene Anderson-Baron said EntoEngine lowers land and water use exponentially compared to bioreactors because it eliminates the first half of the bioreactor production process.

On the cell-based meat side, she said EntoEngine can produce high-value proteins at a low-carbon footprint and cost.

Cultivated meats have been suggested as a sustainable alternative to meat grown on pastures and factory farms, which critics say contributes to environmental degradation, global warming and unsustainable farming practices.

On the medical side, the proteins can be used in stem cell research, biopharmaceuticals, vaccines and skin grafts.

And there is a second life for the flies. The company is exploring the opportunity to turn the fruit fly biomass into chitin, insect oils and insect proteins that can be integrated into the circular economy.

Where Future Fields hopes to be

Future Fields is currently focusing on expanding the products in its portfolio and increasing its production capacity.

The company has shipped products to over 20 countries and serves over 60 cellular agriculture companies with bovine recombinants.

Since inception Future Fields has raised over $18 million in funding, Jalene Anderson-Baron said.

It recently received $5 million from Sustainable Development Technology Canada. The funding will support adding 15 to 20 members to its team of 32 employees, and building out biomanufacturing operations believed to be the first production facility for recombinants derived from fruit flies.

Funds will also be invested to expand its scope with the launch of a human recombinant protein products suite for medical research and the biopharmaceutical industry.

The Anderson-Barons' dedication to Future Fields is that of a family business that both “live and breathe.” They each sport a tattoo of a fruit fly, and their three-year-old child adds personal urgency to help solve issues related to sustainability and climate change.

“There’s nothing else that both of us would (rather) be doing,” she said. “We are very excited to be able to share this technology with Canada and with the world.

"The reason why we were established, the whole ethos of our company, was as response to the climate crisis. We really think our platform has the potential to unlock new industries that are currently being held back by the limitations of biomanufacturing capacity, but in a much more sustainable way.”

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