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Growing chemicals out of moss

Valuable medical, antibacterial and flavour compounds being produced out of the green stuff. Former students of the University of Copenhagen behind the company Tycho Bio

From old-school alchemy to modern science, the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) spin-out TychoBio is using synthetic biology to create compounds more valuable than gold, merely from the water and sunlight that goes into moss.

A large number of companies can produce high-value compounds from petroleum. But this is not sustainable because it generates large quantities of waste or requires intensive harvesting of plants. TychoBio seems to have found a cheap, sustainable alternative to the problem. Their idea consists of producing high-value compounds in moss.

”This means we can produce essential medical, antibacterial and flavour or fragrance compounds in otherwise resource limited settings, such as space. Normally these compounds are either produced from endangered plants or synthesized from oil,” explains Will Wright from TychoBio to the University Post.

Playing with biobricks

Organisms, just like a machine, are built of modules in this case called ‘biobricks’ that can be changed and combined just like LEGO pieces. You can intelligently design a moss that produces compounds that were not natural before.

”There are a few other companies, such as Evolva, who do similar work but mostly they use fermentation, which can be tricky when the compounds are antifungal, for example,” says Wright.

This is achieved by playing with its biobricks. Once you build up your moss, you only need water and a minimum of nutrients to grow the moss and produce your compound of interest.

Alchemy in the 21st century

The business team work is based at Copenhagen Bio Science Park (COBIS), which was voted the best new Science-Based Incubator in the World in 2011 and they are one of the first teams in the Copenhagen Entrepreneur Lab for Life Sciences CELLs. However, the lab work is based at the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Synthetic Biology.

The name of the company is based on Tycho Brahe who is known for his astronomical discoveries but less known as an alchemist. Since the company is turning ‘water into gold’, or compounds worth more than gold per gram, they found TychoBio as an appropriate name for this, a Danish kind of alchemy.

They are currently seeking currently partnership opportunities and have several exciting student masters projects available. If you would like to get in touch, see the fact box above right.

universitypost@adm.ku.dk

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