Every year, up to 6 million sharks are “livered”–they are harvested for their livers, essentially, for the precious substances contained inside. Squalene, a substance found in shark livers, keeps sharks buoyant in the water. For humans, it has a variety of uses: as a delivery agent for vaccines, as a moisturizer in cosmetics, and as a healthy add-on in nutritional supplements (like fish oil).
But squalene doesn’t need to come from sharks. There are other sources, like olives and rice bran. A new startup, SynShark, has licensed technology from Texas A&M University to produce squalene from tobacco, saving sharks while also providing a new source of income for tobacco farmers hurt by the decline in smoking.
SynShark’s technology development was funded by an unlikely source: ARPA-E, the U.S. government’s energy research agency. That’s because squalene also has potential as a high-density biofuel, but the problem is that it’s still not cheap to produce for the energy market. “It’s more of a marketing pivot than anything,” says Jason Mathew Ornstein, managing director of JM Ornstein, a clean-tech commercialization firm that’s working on SynShark. “While we work on the science, what’s nice about this is that it’s not only solving an environmental issue, but it leverages a crop that’s a little bit in decline right now.”
Like shark livers, the tobacco plant can act as a processing source for squalene. And SynShark has designed a new plant pathway that can yield a whole lot more squalene from each tobacco plant. “We can increase the yield so high that we should be quite disruptive to the market,” says Ornstein. Amyris, a renewable products company, already sells plant-derived squalene.
SynShark is beginning field tests for its tobacco plant technology next year. Ornstein stresses just how beneficial the technology could be for struggling tobacco farmers. “It’s cheaper than switching to pears or sweet potato. Here, they can continue to grow tobacco, but have a different destination for the market.”