An interview with Dr Michael Krohn, Member of BRAIN’s Management Board and Unit Head BioActives & Performance Biologicals, Dr Jessica Rehdorf, New Business Development, and Dr Yvonne Tiffert, Project Manager & Platform Coordinator.
BRAIN: What is so interesting about Perilla frutescens?
Michael Krohn: We have noticed a trend towards natural and sustainably produced products and ingredients. Consumers have become more critical and are questioning production processes and product composition. In this context, one of our three main research areas is bioactive natural substances. Our subsidiary AnalytiCon Discovery is a market leader with an extensive library of natural substances. Together we have identified the perilla plant as an attractive candidate for a myriad of applications.
Jessica Rehdorf: The perilla plant has been in use for many years, especially in Asia. Our research focuses on the plant’s natural constituents, more precisely on its essential oils. Its active ingredients have been comprehensively characterised, are safe to use and suitable for many different fields of application. They can also be found in the human body after eating oranges. The body converts them into other metabolic products.
BRAIN: Is this trend also reflected in the political arena?
Michael Krohn: Our research work is embedded in the NatLifE2020 innovation alliance supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). BRAIN coordinates the alliance, and our subsidiaries AnalytiCon Discovery and L.A. Schmitt are also on board.
BRAIN: What is special about your process to obtain active ingredients from perilla?
Yvonne Tiffert: One option is to cultivate and harvest the perilla plant and then to extract its active ingredients. We rely on biotechnological processes for a number of ecological and economic reasons. The starting material is the oil from the peel of oranges or other citrus fruits that is generated in large volumes during food production. We can use it for other utilisation steps in the value chain.
The orange oil is distilled to obtain an extract that consists of more than 90 per cent natural substance (limonene). We use this limonene as a substrate in our biotechnological process, in which a microorganism converts it into the active ingredients of perilla that we want to obtain. This microorganism is a soil bacterium that provides all the enzymes required for biotransformation of the limonene.
Jessica Rehdorf: The raw product obtained from biotransformation is then further processed and purified in a series of steps. This gives us products of different purity levels that meet the requirements of the different fields of application and can be further formulated for the relevant markets.
BRAIN: Which microorganism do you use, and have you modified it by biotechnological means?
Yvonne Tiffert: We use an ordinary soil bacterium as the production strain for this biotransformation. This comprehensively characterised organism is widespread and we use it in its wild-type form as it occurs in nature. That also makes our production strain more attractive for sensitive applications such as foods and cosmetics.
BRAIN: That all sounds very complicated. Are there any alternatives?
Michael Krohn: The production of pure active perilla ingredients in several stages does not call for any extraordinary outlay, as we have shown. But there are also ways of shortening the process. Whether that is desirable depends on the end product. Cleaning agents have to meet lower standards in terms of purity or appearance than foods or body-care products. So we can also offer perilla extracts with a purity of about 90 per cent as well as the pure product.
BRAIN: Doesn’t it cost less to synthesise the active ingredients chemically?
Jessica Rehdorf: Our continual challenge is to develop bioprocesses that can match up to products already established on the market in economic as well as ecological terms. Within the NatLife 2020 alliance, we carried out extensive sustainability studies for our bioprocess with Denmark’s Technical University (DTU). One priority was to compare it with a chemical production process. We were able to clearly demonstrate that the bioprocess is much more sustainable and ecological.
Owing to their specific properties, the active ingredients of perilla can be used for different industry applications.
BRAIN: What other applications do you envisage?
Jessica Rehdorf: Owing to their special properties, the active ingredients of perilla can be used for different industry applications. That applies to medical care and to handling foods, feedstuffs and beverages. A lot of food gets wasted every day because it has gone off. We see possibilities of using the product during food storage, transportation and packaging.
As regards cosmetics, applications from our PerillicActive development programme might include high-quality ingredients for skin-care products. The natural active ingredients also help to stabilise cosmetic products.
BRAIN: Can the active ingredients of perilla also be used for plant protection?
Yvonne Tiffert: We are currently examining this option. In the laboratory, the active ingredients of perilla have also proved effective for plants. This may end up being useful for many crop plants and offer effective alternatives to conventional chemical plant protection products.
BRAIN: How far are you from launching the first products on the market?
Jessica Rehdorf: We submitted the first patent applications during the first project phase of NatLifE 2020. At present we are concerned with driving product ideas forward to find specific market applications, developing the suitable formulations and preparing the required authorisation processes. We expect to launch the first products on the market a few years from now.
BRAIN: What business model do you envisage for marketing the products that come out of this programme?
Michael Krohn: We need partners who can reliably manufacture the products from our PerillicActive programme and bring them to the customers. Whether we will handle marketing ourselves or set up partnerships with other companies remains to be seen. The second option is more likely.
Nature-based freshness and product stability
Plants serve as natural resources for bioactive substances that are used as flavourings in foods, and skincare ingredients in cosmetics. In addition, they also stabilise products. Bioprocesses enable the sustainable production of plant-based active ingredients.
- The quality standards to be met by consumer goods products are becoming more and more stringent. Consumers are mainly interested in environmental protection, product safety and sustainable production processes. Foods, feedstuffs and cosmetics are preparing the ground for a change in demand for biobased products. There is also an urgent need to reduce product losses. According to estimates, one third of all food produced worldwide is thrown away.
- BRAIN faces up to these challenges by developing bioactive natural substances for industrial use. BRAIN’s PerillicActive development programme focuses on the edible plant Perilla frutescens. Its constituents show properties that are useful for many market segments. The active ingredients of perilla protect foods and cosmetics against microbial decay and keep products fresh so they can be stored and enjoyed longer.
- BRAIN has harnessed these properties using biotechnological processes. The starting material for the PerillicActive development programme is the oil from orange peel, a natural raw material that is left over from the manufacturing of fruit juice. A soil microorganism converts the orange oil into bioactive ingredients that can be processed for a variety of applications.
- In the 2016/17 business year, BRAIN’s PerillicActive development programme began to strategically address potential target markets.