Reagenics: Plant molecular harvesting in Israel

Reagenics plant cells in bioreactors. The cells can be used for food products, dyes, vitamins and food additives.

 Saffron stem cells grown in the Reagenics bioreactor.  One kilo of saffron threads come from 180,000 flowers and is presently sold for $5,000-$10,000. One kilo of saffron stem cells can be grown in a 50-liter reactor in one week.  (photo credit: MICHAEL KAGAN)
Saffron stem cells grown in the Reagenics bioreactor. One kilo of saffron threads come from 180,000 flowers and is presently sold for $5,000-$10,000. One kilo of saffron stem cells can be grown in a 50-liter reactor in one week.
(photo credit: MICHAEL KAGAN)

The problem is not new – too many people in the world and not enough food. But an Israeli company called Reagenics aims to solve this problem by growing plant cells in bioreactors. The cells can be used for food products, dyes, vitamins and food additives.

“We all know that Israel is one of the centers of cultured meat, in which you can replicate stem cells of a cow,” Dr. Michael Kagan, the CEO of Reagenics, told The Jerusalem Report in an interview. “We do the same thing with plants. We take plant tissue and revert them to plant stem cells. We replicate the cells in liquid media in our bioreactors.”

“We all know that Israel is one of the centers of cultured meat, in which you can replicate stem cells of a cow. We do the same thing with plants. We take plant tissue and revert them to plant stem cells. We replicate the cells in liquid media in our bioreactors.”

Michael Kagan

Unlike agriculture, bioreactors are not dependent on weather conditions or available land or political unrest. Another example is saffron. For thousands of years the main source of saffron has been Iran. The second largest is Kashmir in India, but climate change has wiped out most of Kashmir’s ability to grow saffron, which has also been challenged by political unrest. As a result, saffron is the most expensive spice on the planet as it flowers only three weeks a year, and needs massive labor, mostly children to pick the saffron threads.

“We can grow saffron year round extremely cheaply,” Kagan said.

He also said that the world’s population is increasing even faster than expected. When he was born, the world’s population was 2.5 billion; today it has just climbed to over 8 billion people, and within 25 years there will be 10 billion people on the planet.

 Reagenics CEO Dr. Michael Kagan (credit: MICHAEL KAGAN) Reagenics CEO Dr. Michael Kagan (credit: MICHAEL KAGAN)

Can this start-up scale up?

One of the challenges of many start-ups is making their proof of concept scalable, being able to produce the large quantities needed. Reagenics has already done that by building bioreactors in Nes Ziona, and a pilot plant in the Golan Heights under construction. They are also working on an agreement to build a bioreactor in Denver, Colorado in the US. Overall, Reagenics say it can grow plant cells four times faster than in traditional agriculture and considerably cheaper.

The company is not only working on food, but for other uses like cosmetics and food additives.

“We have a dual platform,” Kagan said “We convert plants into plant stem cells and our second platform is the bioreactors. They are specially built to grow these plant stem cells.”

In fact, Kagan says, meat culture companies are coming to them for advice on how to scale up.

Another company they are working with supplies natural purple food coloring to the food industry. Until now, most coloring in candies like M & Ms were artificial. Reagenics has found a way to grow it from purple maize, which come from Peru.

Nobody eats purple maize, Kagan said, as it is tasteless but it is shipped from Peru for its color, at a great environmental cost.

“What if we could grow it as single cells in bioreactors at the site in Denver,” Kagan asked. “There would be no transportation cost and a minimal environmental footprint.” ■