Moss is often considered a nuisance, something that clogs up drains and covers over paths. But to Marie Brøns Nørgaard, it’s something very useful indeed.
Nørgaard, 24, leads a Danish startup called TychoBio, which is developing greener ways to produce several chemicals found in perfumes, shampoos, and pharmaceutical drugs.
“We reprogram the moss at a genetic level,” she explains. “Then we can grow the compounds in the moss and sell them to pharmaceutical companies and fragrance companies.”
TychoBio’s first product is a substance called ingenol mebutate, which is used to treat actinic keratosis, an early-stage skin cancer. The material is normally synthesized in a laboratory, but Nørgaard says using moss is cheaper and cleaner.
“It’s a more environmentally beneficial production method because we don’t need factories, we don’t need expensive chemical reagents, and there isn’t a lot of chemical waste. It’s like making chemicals in the greenhouse,” she says.
TychoBio takes lab-grown moss and puts it into plastic bags with water and nutrients. It then leaves it for up to three weeks, before blending it down and extracting out the ingenol. The researchers have used the same method to produce key molecules in frankincense, a popular scent, and they are testing 100 other potential candidates.
Why moss? Nørgaard says it’s a molecularly uncomplicated, making it easy to replace one molecular process with another. It’s also very easy to grow. It has no roots to speak of, and needs nothing more than CO2, water and sunlight.
The six-person team behind TychoBio is currently developing a bioreactor to scale up production. It hopes to have its first products on the market by 2016.